2 Contemporary Examples Of Satire Essays

Not to be confused with satyr.

"Satires" redirects here. For other uses, see Satires (disambiguation).

Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant"[2]—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration,[3] juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.

Satire is nowadays found in many artistic forms of expression, including internet memes, literature, plays, commentary, television shows, and media such as lyrics.

Etymology and roots[edit]

The word satire comes from the Latin word satur and the subsequent phrase lanx satura.Satur meant "full" but the juxtaposition with lanx shifted the meaning to "miscellany or medley": the expression lanx satura literally means "a full dish of various kinds of fruits."[4]

The word satura as used by Quintilian, however, was used to denote only Roman verse satire, a strict genre that imposed hexameter form, a narrower genre than what would be later intended as satire.[4] Quintilian famously said that satura, that is a satire in hexameter verses, was a literary genre of wholly Roman origin (satura tota nostra est). He was aware of and commented on Greek satire, but at the time did not label it as such, although today the origin of satire is considered to be Aristophanes' Old Comedy. The first critic to use the term "satire" in the modern broader sense was Apuleius.[4]

To Quintilian, the satire was a strict literary form, but the term soon escaped from the original narrow definition. Robert Elliott writes:

As soon as a noun enters the domain of metaphor, as one modern scholar has pointed out, it clamours for extension; and satura (which had had no verbal, adverbial, or adjectival forms) was immediately broadened by appropriation from the Greek word for “satyr” (satyros) and its derivatives. The odd result is that the English “satire” comes from the Latin satura; but "satirize", "satiric", etc., are of Greek origin. By about the 4th century AD the writer of satires came to be known as satyricus; St. Jerome, for example, was called by one of his enemies 'a satirist in prose' ('satyricus scriptor in prosa'). Subsequent orthographic modifications obscured the Latin origin of the word satire: satura becomes satyra, and in England, by the 16th century, it was written 'satyre.'

The word satire derives from satura, and its origin was not influenced by the Greek mythological figure of the satyr.[6] In the 17th century, philologist Isaac Casaubon was the first to dispute the etymology of satire from satyr, contrary to the belief up to that time.[7]


The rules of satire are such that it must do more than make you laugh. No matter how amusing it is, it doesn't count unless you find yourself wincing a little even as you chuckle.[8]

Laughter is not an essential component of satire; in fact there are types of satire that are not meant to be "funny" at all. Conversely, not all humor, even on such topics as politics, religion or art is necessarily "satirical", even when it uses the satirical tools of irony, parody, and burlesque.

Even light-hearted satire has a serious "after-taste": the organizers of the Ig Nobel Prize describe this as "first make people laugh, and then make them think".[10]

Social and psychological functions[edit]

Satire and irony in some cases have been regarded as the most effective source to understand a society, the oldest form of social study.[11] They provide the keenest insights into a group's collective psyche, reveal its deepest values and tastes, and the society's structures of power.[12][13] Some authors have regarded satire as superior to non-comic and non-artistic disciplines like history or anthropology.[11][14][15] In a prominent example from ancient Greece, philosopher Plato, when asked by a friend for a book to understand Athenian society, referred him to the plays of Aristophanes.[16][17]

Historically, satire has satisfied the popular need to debunk and ridicule the leading figures in politics, economy, religion and other prominent realms of power.[18] Satire confronts public discourse and the collective imaginary, playing as a public opinion counterweight to power (be it political, economic, religious, symbolic, or otherwise), by challenging leaders and authorities. For instance, it forces administrations to clarify, amend or establish their policies. Satire's job is to expose problems and contradictions, and it's not obligated to solve them.[19]Karl Kraus set in the history of satire a prominent example of a satirist role as confronting public discourse.[20]

For its nature and social role, satire has enjoyed in many societies a special freedom license to mock prominent individuals and institutions.[21] The satiric impulse, and its ritualized expressions, carry out the function of resolving social tension.[22] Institutions like the ritual clowns, by giving expression to the antisocial tendencies, represent a safety valve which reestablishes equilibrium and health in the collective imaginary, which are jeopardized by the repressive aspects of society.[23][24]

The state of political satire in a given society reflects the tolerance or intolerance that characterizes it,[18] and the state of civil liberties and human rights. Under totalitarian regimes any criticism of a political system, and especially satire, is suppressed. A typical example is the Soviet Union where the dissidents, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov were under strong pressure from the government. While satire of everyday life in the USSR was allowed, the most prominent satirist being Arkady Raikin, political satire existed in the form of anecdotes[25] that made fun of Soviet political leaders, especially Brezhnev, famous for his narrow-mindness and love for awards and decorations.


Satire is a diverse genre which is complex to classify and define, with a wide range of satiric "modes".[26][27]

Horatian, Juvenalian, Menippean[edit]

Satirical literature can commonly be categorized as either Horatian, Juvenalian, or Menippean.[28]


Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist Horace (65–8 BCE), playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) wrote Satires to gently ridicule the dominant opinions and "philosophical beliefs of ancient Rome and Greece" (Rankin).[29] Rather than writing in harsh or accusing tones, he addressed issues with humor and clever mockery. Horatian satire follows this same pattern of "gently [ridiculing] the absurdities and follies of human beings" (Drury).[30]
It directs wit, exaggeration, and self-deprecating humour toward what it identifies as folly, rather than evil. Horatian satire's sympathetic tone is common in modern society.[31]
A Horatian satirist's goal is to heal the situation with smiles, rather than by anger. Horatian satire is a gentle reminder to take life less seriously and evokes a wry smile.[30] A Horatian satirist makes fun of general human folly rather than engaging in specific or personal attacks. Shamekia Thomas suggests, "In a work using Horatian satire, readers often laugh at the characters in the story who are the subject of mockery as well as themselves and society for behaving in those ways." Alexander Pope has been established as an author whose satire "heals with morals what it hurts with wit" (Green).[32] Alexander Pope—and Horatian satire—attempt to teach.


  • The Ig Nobel Prizes.
  • Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil's Dictionary .
  • Defoe, Daniel, The True-Born Englishman .
  • The Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
  • Trollope, Anthony, The Way We Live Now .
  • Gogol, Nikolai, Dead Souls .
  • Groening, Matthew "Matt", The Simpsons .
  • Lewis, Clive Staples, The Screwtape Letters .
  • Mercer, Richard ‘Rick’, The Rick Mercer Report .
  • Pope, Alexander, The Rape of the Lock .
  • Reiner, Rob, This Is Spinal Tap .
  • Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .


See also: Satires of Juvenal

Juvenalian satire, named for the writings of the Roman satirist Juvenal (late first century – early second century AD), is more contemptuous and abrasive than the Horatian. Juvenal disagreed with the opinions of the public figures and institutions of the Republic and actively attacked them through his literature. "He utilized the satirical tools of exaggeration and parody to make his targets appear monstrous and incompetent" (Podzemny).[33] Juvenal satire follows this same pattern of abrasively ridiculing societal structures. Juvenal also, unlike Horace, attacked public officials and governmental organizations through his satires, regarding their opinions not just as wrong, but as evil.

Following in this tradition, Juvenalian satire addresses perceived social evil through scorn, outrage, and savage ridicule. This form is often pessimistic, characterized by the use of irony, sarcasm, moral indignation and personal invective, with less emphasis on humor. Strongly polarized political satire can often be classified as Juvenalian.
A Juvenal satirist's goal is generally to provoke some sort of political or societal change because he sees his opponent or object as evil or harmful.[34] A Juvenal satirist mocks "societal structure, power, and civilization" (Thomas)[35] by exaggerating the words or position of his opponent in order to jeopardize their opponent's reputation and/or power. Jonathan Swift has been established as an author who "borrowed heavily from Juvenal's techniques in [his critique] of contemporary English society" (Podzemny).[33]


  • Barnes, Julian, England, England .
  • Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451 .
  • Brooker, Charlie, Black Mirror .
  • Bulgakov, Mikhail, Heart of a Dog .
  • Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange .
  • Burroughs, William, Naked Lunch .
  • Byron, George Gordon, Lord, Don Juan .
  • Cooke, Ebenezer, The Sot-Weed Factor; or, A Voyage to Maryland,—a satire, in which is described the laws, government, courts, and constitutions of the country, and also the buildings, feasts, frolics, entertainments, and drunken humors of the inhabitants in that part of America .
  • Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho .
  • Golding, William, Lord of the Flies .
  • Hall, Joseph, Virgidemiarum .
  • Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 .
  • Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World .
  • Johnson, Samuel, London , an adaptation of Juvenal, Third Satire .
  • Junius, Letters .
  • Kubrick, Stanley, Dr. Strangelove .
  • Mencken, HL, Libido for the Ugly .
  • Morris, Chris, Brass Eye .
  • ———, The Day Today .
  • Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four .
  • Orwell, George, Animal Farm .
  • Palahniuk, Chuck, Fight Club .
  • Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal .
  • Zamyatin, Yevgeny, We .
  • Voltaire, Candide .

Satire versus teasing[edit]

In the history of theatre there has always been a conflict between engagement and disengagement on politics and relevant issue, between satire and grotesque on one side, and jest with teasing on the other.[36]Max Eastman defined the spectrum of satire in terms of "degrees of biting", as ranging from satire proper at the hot-end, and "kidding" at the violet-end; Eastman adopted the term kidding to denote what is just satirical in form, but is not really firing at the target.[37]Nobel laureate satirical playwright Dario Fo pointed out the difference between satire and teasing (sfottò).[38] Teasing is the reactionary side of the comic; it limits itself to a shallow parody of physical appearance. The side-effect of teasing is that it humanizes and draws sympathy for the powerful individual towards which it is directed. Satire instead uses the comic to go against power and its oppressions, has a subversive character, and a moral dimension which draws judgement against its targets.[39][40][41][42] Fo formulated an operational criterion to tell real satire from sfottò, saying that real satire arouses an outraged and violent reaction, and that the more they try to stop you, the better is the job you are doing.[43] Fo contends that, historically, people in positions of power have welcomed and encouraged good-humoured buffoonery, while modern day people in positions of power have tried to censor, ostracize and repress satire.[36][39]

Teasing (sfottò) is an ancient form of simple buffoonery, a form of comedy without satire's subversive edge. Teasing includes light and affectionate parody, good-humoured mockery, simple one-dimensional poking fun, and benign spoofs. Teasing typically consists of an impersonation of someone monkeying around with his exterior attributes, tics, physical blemishes, voice and mannerisms, quirks, way of dressing and walking, and/or the phrases he typically repeats. By contrast, teasing never touches on the core issue, never makes a serious criticism judging the target with irony; it never harms the target's conduct, ideology and position of power; it never undermines the perception of his morality and cultural dimension.[39][41]Sfottò directed towards a powerful individual makes him appear more human and draws sympathy towards him.[44]Hermann Göring propagated jests and jokes against himself, with the aim of humanizing his image.[45][46]

Classifications by topics[edit]

Types of satire can also be classified according to the topics it deals with. From the earliest times, at least since the plays of Aristophanes, the primary topics of literary satire have been politics, religion and sex.[47][48][49][50] This is partly because these are the most pressing problems that affect anybody living in a society, and partly because these topics are usually taboo.[47][51] Among these, politics in the broader sense is considered the pre-eminent topic of satire.[51] Satire which targets the clergy is a type of political satire, while religious satire is that which targets religious beliefs.[52] Satire on sex may overlap with blue comedy, off-color humor and dick jokes.

Scatology has a long literary association with satire,[47][53][54] as it is a classical mode of the grotesque, the grotesque body and the satiric grotesque.[47][55]Shit plays a fundamental role in satire because it symbolizes death, the turd being "the ultimate dead object".[53][54] The satirical comparison of individuals or institutions with human excrement, exposes their "inherent inertness, corruption and dead-likeness".[53][56][57] The ritual clowns of clown societies, like among the Pueblo Indians, have ceremonies with filth-eating.[58][59] In other cultures, sin-eating is an apotropaic rite in which the sin-eater (also called filth-eater),[60][61] by ingesting the food provided, takes "upon himself the sins of the departed".[62] Satire about death overlaps with black humor and gallows humor.

Another classification by topics is the distinction between political satire, religious satire and satire of manners.[63] Political satire is sometimes called topical satire, satire of manners is sometimes called satire of everyday life, and religious satire is sometimes called philosophical satire. Comedy of manners, sometimes also called satire of manners, criticizes mode of life of common people; political satire aims at behavior, manners of politicians, and vices of political systems. Historically, comedy of manners, which first appeared in British theater in 1620, has uncritically accepted the social code of the upper classes.[64] Comedy in general accepts the rules of the social game, while satire subverts them.[65]

Another analysis of satire is the spectrum of his possible tones: wit, ridicule, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, the sardonic and invective.[66][67]

Classifications by medium[edit]

Satire is found not only in written literary forms. In preliterate cultures it manifests itself in ritual and folk forms, as well as in trickster tales and oral poetry.[22]

It appears also in graphic arts, music, sculpture, dance, cartoon strips, and graffiti. Examples are Dada sculptures, Pop Art works, music of Gilbert and Sullivan and Erik Satie, punk and rock music.[22] In modern media culture, stand-up comedy is an enclave in which satire can be introduced into mass media, challenging mainstream discourse.[22]Comedy roasts, mock festivals, and stand-up comedians in nightclubs and concerts are the modern forms of ancient satiric rituals.[22]


Ancient Egypt[edit]

One of the earliest examples of what we might call satire, The Satire of the Trades,[68] is in Egyptian writing from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. The text's apparent readers are students, tired of studying. It argues that their lot as scribes is useful, and their lot far superior to that of the ordinary man. Scholars such as Helck[69] think that the context was meant to be serious.

The Papyrus Anastasi I[70] (late 2nd millennium BC) contains a satirical letter which first praises the virtues of its recipient, but then mocks the reader's meagre knowledge and achievements.

Ancient Greece[edit]

The Greeks had no word for what later would be called "satire", although the terms cynicism and parody were used. Modern critics call the Greek playwrightAristophanes one of the best known early satirists: his plays are known for their critical political and societal commentary,[71] particularly for the political satire by which he criticized the powerful Cleon (as in The Knights). He is also notable for the persecution he underwent.[71][72][73][74] Aristophanes' plays turned upon images of filth and disease. His bawdy style was adopted by Greek dramatist-comedian Menander. His early play Drunkenness contains an attack on the politician Callimedon.

The oldest form of satire still in use is the Menippean satire by Menippus of Gadara. His own writings are lost. Examples from his admirers and imitators mix seriousness and mockery in dialogues and present parodies before a background of diatribe. As in the case of Aristophanes plays, menippean satire turned upon images of filth and disease.

Roman world[edit]

The first Roman to discuss satire critically was Quintilian, who invented the term to describe the writings of Gaius Lucilius. The two most prominent and influential ancient Roman satirists are Horace and Juvenal, who wrote during the early days of the Roman Empire. Other important satirists in ancient Latin are Gaius Lucilius and Persius. Satire in their work is much wider than in the modern sense of the word, including fantastic and highly coloured humorous writing with little or no real mocking intent. When Horace criticized Augustus, he used veiled ironic terms. In contrast, Pliny reports that the 6th-century-BC poet Hipponax wrote satirae that were so cruel that the offended hanged themselves.[76]

In the 2nd century AD, Lucian wrote True History, a book satirizing the clearly unrealistic travelogues/adventures written by Ctesias, Iambulus, and Homer. He states that he was surprised they expected people to believe their lies, and stating that he, like they, has no actual knowledge or experience, but shall now tell lies as if he did. He goes on to describe a far more obviously extreme and unrealistic tale, involving interplanetary exploration, war among alien life forms, and life inside a 200 mile long whale back in the terrestrial ocean, all intended to make obvious the fallacies of books like Indica and The Odyssey.

Medieval Islamic world[edit]

Main articles: Arabic satire and Persian satire

Medieval Arabic poetry included the satiric genre hija. Satire was introduced into Arabic prose literature by the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz in the 9th century. While dealing with serious topics in what are now known as anthropology, sociology and psychology, he introduced a satirical approach, "based on the premise that, however serious the subject under review, it could be made more interesting and thus achieve greater effect, if only one leavened the lump of solemnity by the insertion of a few amusing anecdotes or by the throwing out of some witty or paradoxical observations. He was well aware that, in treating of new themes in his prose works, he would have to employ a vocabulary of a nature more familiar in hija, satirical poetry." For example, in one of his zoological works, he satirized the preference for longer human penis size, writing: "If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh". Another satirical story based on this preference was an Arabian Nights tale called "Ali with the Large Member".[78]

In the 10th century, the writer Tha'alibi recorded satirical poetry written by the Arabic poets As-Salami and Abu Dulaf, with As-Salami praising Abu Dulaf's wide breadth of knowledge and then mocking his ability in all these subjects, and with Abu Dulaf responding back and satirizing As-Salami in return. An example of Arabic political satire included another 10th-century poet Jarir satirizing Farazdaq as "a transgressor of the Sharia" and later Arabic poets in turn using the term "Farazdaq-like" as a form of political satire.

The terms "comedy" and "satire" became synonymous after Aristotle's Poetics was translated into Arabic in the medieval Islamic world, where it was elaborated upon by Islamic philosophers and writers, such as Abu Bischr, his pupil Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. Due to cultural differences, they disassociated comedy from Greek dramatic representation and instead identified it with Arabic poetic themes and forms, such as hija (satirical poetry). They viewed comedy as simply the "art of reprehension", and made no reference to light and cheerful events, or troubled beginnings and happy endings, associated with classical Greek comedy. After the Latin translations of the 12th century, the term "comedy" thus gained a new semantic meaning in Medieval literature.[81]

Ubayd Zakani introduced satire in Persian literature during the 14th century. His work is noted for its satire and obscene verses, often political or bawdy, and often cited in debates involving homosexual practices. He wrote the Resaleh-ye Delgosha, as well as Akhlaq al-Ashraf ("Ethics of the Aristocracy") and the famous humorous fable Masnavi Mush-O-Gorbeh (Mouse and Cat), which was a political satire. His non-satirical serious classical verses have also been regarded as very well written, in league with the other great works of Persian literature. Between 1905 and 1911, Bibi Khatoon Astarabadi and other Iranian writers wrote notable satires.

Medieval Europe[edit]

In the Early Middle Ages, examples of satire were the songs by Goliards or vagants now best known as an anthology called Carmina Burana and made famous as texts of a composition by the 20th-century composer Carl Orff. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular, although little has survived. With the advent of the High Middle Ages and the birth of modern vernacular literature in the 12th century, it began to be used again, most notably by Chaucer. The disrespectful manner was considered "unchristian" and ignored, except for the moral satire, which mocked misbehaviour in Christian terms. Examples are Livre des Manières by Étienne de Fougères (fr) (~1178), and some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Sometimes epic poetry (epos) was mocked, and even feudal society, but there was hardly a general interest in the genre.

Early modern western satire[edit]

Direct social commentary via satire returned with a vengeance in the 16th century, when farcical texts such as the works of François Rabelais tackled more serious issues (and incurred the wrath of the crown as a result).

Two major satirists of Europe in the Renaissance were Giovanni Boccaccio and François Rabelais. Other examples of Renaissance satire include Till Eulenspiegel, Reynard the Fox, Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (1494), Erasmus's Moriae Encomium (1509), Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and Carajicomedia (1519).

The Elizabethan (i.e. 16th-century English) writers thought of satire as related to the notoriously rude, coarse and sharp satyr play. Elizabethan "satire" (typically in pamphlet form) therefore contains more straightforward abuse than subtle irony. The French HuguenotIsaac Casaubon pointed out in 1605 that satire in the Roman fashion was something altogether more civilised. Casaubon discovered and published Quintilian's writing and presented the original meaning of the term (satira, not satyr), and the sense of wittiness (reflecting the "dishfull of fruits") became more important again. Seventeenth-century English satire once again aimed at the "amendment of vices" (Dryden).

In the 1590s a new wave of verse satire broke with the publication of Hall's Virgidemiarum, six books of verse satires targeting everything from literary fads to corrupt noblemen. Although Donne had already circulated satires in manuscript, Hall's was the first real attempt in English at verse satire on the Juvenalian model.[page needed] The success of his work combined with a national mood of disillusion in the last years of Elizabeth's reign triggered an avalanche of satire—much of it less conscious of classical models than Hall's — until the fashion was brought to an abrupt stop by censorship.[a]

Age of Enlightenment[edit]

The Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries advocating rationality, produced a great revival of satire in Britain. This was fuelled by the rise of partisan politics, with the formalisation of the Tory and Whig parties—and also, in 1714, by the formation of the Scriblerus Club, which included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Robert Harley, Thomas Parnell, and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke. This club included several of the notable satirists of early-18th-century Britain. They focused their attention on Martinus Scriblerus, "an invented learned fool... whose work they attributed all that was tedious, narrow-minded, and pedantic in contemporary scholarship".[84] In their hands astute and biting satire of institutions and individuals became a popular weapon. The turn to the 18th century was characterized by a switch from Horatian, soft, pseudo-satire, to biting "juvenal" satire.[85]

Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest of Anglo-Irish satirists, and one of the first to practise modern journalistic satire. For instance, In his A Modest Proposal Swift suggests that Irish peasants be encouraged to sell their own children as food for the rich, as a solution to the "problem" of poverty. His purpose is of course to attack indifference to the plight of the desperately poor. In his book Gulliver's Travels he writes about the flaws in human society in general and English society in particular. John Dryden wrote an influential essay entitled "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire"[86] that helped fix the definition of satire in the literary world. His satirical Mac Flecknoe was written in response to a rivalry with Thomas Shadwell and eventually inspired Alexander Pope to write his satirical The Rape of the Lock. Other satirical works by Pope include the Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot.

Alexander Pope (b. May 21, 1688) was a satirist known for his Horatian satirist style and translation of the Iliad. Famous throughout and after the long 18th century, Pope died in 1744.[87] Pope, in his The Rape of the Lock, is delicately chiding society in a sly but polished voice by holding up a mirror to the follies and vanities of the upper class. Pope does not actively attack the self-important pomp of the British aristocracy, but rather presents it in such a way that gives the reader a new perspective from which to easily view the actions in the story as foolish and ridiculous. A mockery of the upper class, more delicate and lyrical than brutal, Pope nonetheless is able to effectively illuminate the moral degradation of society to the public. The Rape of the Lock assimilates the masterful qualities of a heroic epic, such as the Iliad, which Pope was translating at the time of writing The Rape of the Lock

1867 edition of Punch, a ground-breaking British magazine of popular humour, including a great deal of satire of the contemporary, social, and political scene.
"Le satire e l'epistole di Q. Orazio Flacco", printed in 1814.
The satirical papyrus at the British Museum
Satirical ostraca showing a cat guarding geese, c.1120 BC, Egypt.
Figured ostracon showing a cat waiting on a mouse, Egypt
'A Welch wedding' Satirical Cartoon c.1780

Satire Definition

What is satire? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take aim atother targets as well—from societal conventions to government policies. Satire is an entertaining form of social commentary, and it occurs in many forms: there are satirical novels, poems, and essays, as well as satirical films, shows, and cartoons. Alec Baldwin's impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live is an example of satire.

Some additional key details about satire:

  • Satire is a bit unusual as a literary term because it can be used to describe both a literary device and the specific genre of literature that makes use of the device. Just like a comedy is comedic because it uses comedy, a satire is satirical because it uses satire. For most of this entry, the word "satire" will be used refer to the device, not the genre.
  • Satire often coincides with the use of other literary devices, such as irony, malapropism, overstatement, understatement, juxtaposition, or parody.
  • Though most satires seek to draw laughter, there are many unfunny or even dark examples of satire, such as George Orwell's Animal Farm or Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, which criticize communist societies and capitalist societies, respectively.

How to Pronounce Satire

Here's how to pronounce satire: sa-tire

Satire as Literary Device vs. Satire as Genre

There are many novels, plays, and other works of literature that fall into the genre of satire. These works are all characterized by their consistent and sustained satirical attacks on their various targets. For instance, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn satirizes the hypocrisies of pre-Civil-War society in the American South, especially its traditions of racism and slavery.

But satire is not only found in literature that falls into the broader genre of satire. To the contrary, satire is a device that can be used in many types of writing and art. For instance, a 2017 production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesarin New York City came under criticism for costuming Caesar (who gets assassinated in the play) in a business suit and bright red tie that closely resembled the standard garb of President Donald Trump. While the play Julius Caesar is not itself a satire, this costuming decision added an element of satire to the play, since it equated the despotic almost-Roman-emperor with an American president whom some have criticized as having tyrannical impulses of his own.

Satire and Humor

Satirists use humor not only to to ridicule their subjects, but also to gain the attention and trust of their readers. While readers might not always respond to a highly-conceptual, nuanced argument for change laid out in a dense manifesto or academic essay, they can easily and enjoyably recognize societal problems targeted by satirical writing. Some scholars have argued that the popular appeal of satire helps in bringing about actual social reform, since the use of humor makes it easier to disseminate political and societal critiques more widely.

However, humor is not a required element of satire. George Orwell's Animal Farm is one of the more famous satires ever written, but few people find humor in it—and in fact, many people find it to be a deeply unsettling and not-at-all funny book.

Types of Satire

Traditionally, scholars have divided satire into two main categories: Horatianand Juvenalian satire.These labels are derived from the names of the renowned Roman satiristsHorace and Juvenal, who originated each type. A third, less common type of satire is Menippean satire, named after Menippus, the Greek cynic and satirist. These labels are more of a classical framework for literary critics rather than a strict set of guidelines that all modern satires must follow, but they are worth reviewing because they can help make clear the wide variety of forms that satire can take.

  • Horatiansatire is a gentler and typically comic form of satire in which the author or narrator takes aim at the common flaws in human beings, with the primary goal of entertaining readers and offering them useful insights into their own behavior. Horatian satire isn't generally written with the intention of bringing about social change.
    • Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock is an example of Horatian satire that gently mocks the English upper class for its vanity and dim-wittedness.
  • Juvenalian satire is often described as dark or tragic rather than comic. It uses irony to highlight and combat the wrongdoings of public figures and institutions. It is distinguished from Horatian satire by the more hostile tone it takes towards its subjects. For this reason, it's often used in more serious political writing.
    • George Orwell's Animal Farmis a Juvenalian satire that isn't particularly funny. It ridicules communist governments for their total lack of equality.
    • Though Alec Baldwin's portrayal of President Trump on Saturday Night Live can have its lighter moments, the bulk of his satire pointedly criticizes Trump, perhaps with the intent of shaming the president into altering his course or of mobilizing citizens to work against Trump's goals and policies.
  • Menippean satire is less common than Juvenalian or Horatian satire, though it's the oldest type of satire. Menippean satires target mindsets or worldviews instead of targeting specific people. There is considerable overlap between Horatian and Menippean satire, since both often target people's stupidity or vices rather than targeting specific people, though the tone of Menippean satire is often harsher, like Juvenalian satire.

Literary Devices Used in Satire

Satire often depends on other literary devices to help it achieve its effect. Below is a list of some of the most common devices that satirists employ when mocking their subjects. Keep in mind that these devices are not specific types of satire—they're just devices that are commonly used as a part of satire (the device), or in satire (the genre).

  • Verbal irony refers to the use of words to express something other than their literal meaning. This type of irony depends on a disconnect between what is said and what is meant or what is true—so satirists often use irony to suggest that a speaker is too much of a fool to understand a situation or, worse, a liar. Imagine if a public official told a group of citizens, "There's nothing to worry about!" right after a dam had broken before their very eyes. This would make for an effective satire of a government's careless response to a natural disaster.
  • An anachronism is a person or thing that belongs to a time period other than the one during which a piece of writing is set. Satirists might use anachronism to demonstrate how out of touch a subject is with his or her society. For example, if the same public official in the example above told a 21st-century crowd not to worry because steamboats would come to rescue them, readers would understand that the implication was that officials were either too incompetent or too clueless to resolve the problem.
  • Parody is the imitation of a literary style for humorous effect. Satirical authors use parody to attack literary conventions and traditional forms of rhetoric, often by exaggerating the key characteristics of the genre until they seem ridiculous or nonsensical. For example, in the prologue to Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel, Don Quixote, Cervantes satirizes the pompous literary conventions in his contemporary Spain by creating his own over-the-top imitations of the elaborate poems that other authors commonly cited in the prologues to their works. Other writers of the time cited such poems to impress readers and project a sense of authority, but Cervantes' parodies make clear that those other writers are merely pretentious and ridiculous.
  • Understatement is downplaying something's size, significance, or quality. This device is useful to satirists because, like irony, it can often be used to portray a speaker as deceptive or foolish. If a politician understates the severity of his or her actions (e.g., "I don't think starting a war we couldn't win was the best decision"), it underscores just how ineffective and uncritical someone in a position of power can be.
  • Overstatement is the exaggeration of something's size, significance, or quality. This device can also be used to underscore a speaker's shaky grasp on the reality of any given situation. A politician might overstate the extent of his or her achievements ("This was the best bill ever passed"), so satirists use the device to expose the disconnect between what someone says and the reality of the situation.
  • Juxtaposition is a literary device in which an author places two things next to each other to highlight the contrast between them. In satirical writing, juxtaposition is especially effective when the combination is unexpected. For example, Seth Grahame-Smith's popular parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, inserts zombies into the genteel world of Jane Austen's 19th-century England. Grahame-Smith could be said to be using juxtaposition to satirize either the propriety of Bennet's society, the ubiquity of zombies in American popular culture, or both.
  • Malapropism is the humorous and usually unintentional use of a word in the place of a similar-sounding one. Because these speech errors have the potential to be embarrassing, satirists may portray people as fools by giving them malapropistic lines.

Satire Examples

You can find examples of satire in most art forms, because artists who are critical of their societies may wish to bring about reform or simply to entertain their audiences by mocking familiar people or institutions.

Satire in Literature

There has been a long tradition of satirical novels that criticize and poke fun at all aspects of both society and humanity more generally.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

In this example from Chapter Four of Gulliver's Travels, Swift satirizes the historically troubled relationship between Catholics and Protestants in England, recreating the conflict as a battle over the correct way to eat eggs:

It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty's Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs.

The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. These civil Commotions were constantly fomented by the Monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the Exiles always fled for Refuge to that Empire. It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End.

While the battle between the two types of egg-eaters is clearly ridiculous—those who fight in it would rather die than eat their eggs "incorrectly"—Swift here is actually taking a jab at the religious quarrels that have played a major role in English politics for hundreds of years by recasting these disputes as frivolous and arbitrary. Swift makes it clear that he's satirizing religious conflicts in England with an allusion to the religious revolts that claimed the life of King Charles I in 1625 and caused his heir, James II, to flee to France. By juxtaposing the king's dramatic escape with the trivial law that led to it, Swift is mocking the seriousness of the ongoing feud.

Satire in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

In the Third Canto of The Rape of the Lock, Pope satirizes the vanity of his fellow Englishmen, describing a minor incident (in which a woman loses a lock of hair) as an epic event.

Sudden he view'd, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,
Resign'd to fate, and with a sigh retired.
The peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide,
To enclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.
E'en then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interposed;
Fate urged the shears, and cut the Sylph in twain
(But airy substance soon unites again),
The meeting points the sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

Here Pope alludes to a real-life episode in which Robert Petre stole a lock of hair from his love interest, Arabella Fermor. Pope satirizes the minor event by inflating its importance to epic proportions: he makes reference to Sylphs, which are mythological creatures who intervene in moments of crisis. Additionally, Pope overstates the male lover's frustration and the extent to which Fate played a role in the incident (the minor theft of a single curl). The repetition of "for ever" in the final line only heightens the humor of the situation: the hair will obviously grow back in a short amount of time. These lines are gentle jabs at his peers' fixation on appearances.

Additional Works of Satire in Literature

Some additional famous satirical works of literature, and their targets, are:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn(Pre-civil-war Southern society, in particular its racism)
  • American Psycho(Consumer capitalist American society of the 1980s)
  • Animal Farm(Communist in general and the Soviet Union in particular)
  • Arms and the Man(Romantic ideals, particularly about love and war)
  • Candide(Every powerful institution, from the Church to the military, of 18th century Europe)
  • Catch-22(The U.S. military)
  • Don Quixote(Among many other things, fictional books about chivalrous heroes that were popular when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote)
  • Gulliver's Travels(English society, and humans in general)
  • A Modest Proposal(English society, particularly in its dealings with Ireland, which at the time was under English control)

Satire in Film and Television

Satire is popular on television, especially on late-night talk shows like Saturday Night Live and The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert, where hosts regularly target politicians and celebrities who have been in the news recently. Ssome famous satirical movies and their targets are:

  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(the Cold War, American geopolitics, the military industrial complex, and nuclear proliferation)
  • Deadpool(Marvel superheroes, particularly their straight-laced style)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street(American capitalists, in particular their lavish lifestyles and prodigious hedonism)
  • Happiness(American suburban life, particularly its treatment of sexuality)
  • Monty Python's The Meaning of Life(English society, particularly its propriety and religious convictions)
  • Zoolander(The fashion industry)
  • M*A*S*H (The U.S. Military)

Satire in Political Cartoons

For centuries, cartoonists have used satire to raise awareness of political issues and to belittle people in positions of power. Often, they present extremely unflattering portraits of public figures, with exaggerated facial features and outrageous outfits to emphasize how loathsome they are in the eyes of the artist and readers.

Satire in James Gillray's The Plumb-pudding in Danger

Published in 1805, this cartoon depicts the French emperor and British prime minister battling for bigger portions of a globe-shaped dessert. Gillray satirizes French and British political ambitions by recasting the two leaders' competition for global dominance as a fight at the dinner table. While leaders often present their expansion efforts as being for the good of the nation, Gillray links their desire for new territory to their endless appetite for personal fame and power.

Why Do Writers Choose to Write Satire?

Some authors write satire to raise awareness of social problems and apply pressure on the individuals or institutions responsible for creating them. However, satires don't have to explicitly call for social change—they may just be poking fun at human nature for the sake of entertainment. Writers can use satire for a variety of reasons:

  • To bring attention to issues that might otherwise be overlooked.
  • To advocate for social reform.
  • To provide insight into human weaknesses.
  • To amuse readers by bringing powerful figures down a notch.
  • To invite readers to reflect on their own weaknesses and shortcomings.
  • To mock literary or stylistic conventions.
  • To recast strongly-held convictions as harmful and/or meaningless.
  • To make light of, or quell anxiety about, unpleasant situations by making them fun.

Other Helpful Satire Resources


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