Outstanding among the classical satirists was the Greek dramatist Aristophanes, whose play The Clouds (423 B.C.) satirizes Socrates as the embodiment of atheism and sophistry, while The Wasps (422) satirizes the Athenian court system. The satiric styles of two Roman poets, Horace and Juvenal, became models for writers of later ages. The satire of Horace is mild, gently amused, yet sophisticated, whereas that of Juvenal is vitriolic and replete with moral indignation; Shakespeare later wrote Horatian satire and Jonathan Swift wrote Juvenalian satire.
From the beast fables, fabliaux, and Chaucerian caricatures to the extended treatments of John Skelton, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Erasmus, and Cervantes, the satirical tradition flourished throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, culminating in the golden age of satire in the late 17th and early 18th cent. The familiar names of Swift, Samuel Butler, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, and William Hogarth, in England, and of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, La Fontaine, Molière, and Voltaire, in France, suggest not only the nature of the controversies that provided a target for the satirist's darts in both nations, but also the rediscovery and consequent adaptation of the classical models to individual talents. Pope, for example, wrote The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock epic about the crisis that occurs when a lock of Lady Belinda's hair is snipped off by a suitor as she sips her coffee. The poem is based upon an actual happening, and Pope's Horatian tone gently castigates the frivolous life of London society. Swift, on the other hand, echoes Juvenal's "savage indignation." In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift exposes humanity in all its baseness and cruelty. Throughout his encounters with the inhabitants of imaginary lands, starting with the Lilliputians and ending with the Houyhnhnms—the latter are horses endowed with noble attributes, while their servants are bestial, filthy humanoids called Yahoos—Gulliver's (and Swift's) misanthropy grows, culminating in his refusal, once he is reunited with his family, to eat with creatures so closely resembling Yahoos.
In the 19th cent., satire gave way to a more gentle form of criticism. Manners and morals were still ridiculed but usually in the framework of a longer work, such as a novel. However, satire can be found in the poems of Lord Byron, in the librettos of William S. Gilbert, in the plays of Oscar Wilde and G. B. Shaw, and in the fiction of W. M. Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, and many others. American satirists of the period include Washington Irving, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain.
Although 20th-century satire continues to register Horatian or Juvenalian reactions to the enormities of an age dominated by fear of the atom bomb and plagued by pollution, racism, drugs, planned obsolescence, and the abuse of power, critics have discerned some shifts in its source. In some instances the satirist is the audience rather than the artist. Hence the enthusiasm in the 1960s for "camp"—defined by Susan Sontag as meaning works of art that can be enjoyed but not taken seriously, even though they may have been created seriously—indeed, works that are enjoyed for the very qualities that make them second-rate. Sontag's examples of "camp" include Tiffany lamps, the ballet Swan Lake, and the movie Casablanca. Occasionally the audience is the victim of the satire. The so-called put-on, whether a play (Samuel Beckett's Breath, in which breathing is heard on a blacked-out stage), a joke (Lenny Bruce's nightclub routines), or an artifact (John Chamberlain's smashed-up cars), seeks to confuse its audience by presenting the fraudulent as a true work of art, thus rendering the whole concept of "art" questionable. More conventional contemporary satirists of note are Sinclair Lewis, James Thurber, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden, Philip Roth, and Joseph Heller.
See G. Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (1962); L. Feinberg, The Satirist (1963); A. Kernan, The Plot of Satire (1965); critical anthology ed. by J. Russell and A. Brown (1967); J. R. Clark, ed., Satire—That Blasted Art (1973); M. Seidel, The Satiric Inheritance (1979); H. D. Weinbrot, Eighteenth Century Satire: Essays on Text and Context from Dryden to Peter Pindar (1988).
A very common, almost defining feature of satire is its strong vein of irony or sarcasm, but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. The essential point, however, is that "in satire, irony is militant". This "militant irony" (or sarcasm) often professes to approve the very things the satirist actually wishes to attack.
Satire (in the modern sense of the word) is found in many artistic forms of expression, including literature, plays, commentary, and media such as song lyrics.
The term is also today applied to many works other than those which would have been considered satire by Quintilian - including, for instance, ancient Greek authors predating the first Roman satires. Public opinion in the Athenian democracy, for example, was remarkably influenced by the political satire written by such comic poets as Aristophanes for the theatre.
Humour about a particular subject (politics, religion and art for instance) is not necessarily satirical because the subject itself is often a subject of satire. Nor is humour using the great satiric tools of irony, parody, or burlesque always meant in a satirical sense.
The Papyrus Anastasi I (late 2nd millennium BC) contains the text of a satirical letter in which the writer at first praises the virtues but then mocks the meagre knowledge and achievements of the recipient of the letter.
The oldest form of satire still in use is the Menippean satire by Menippus of Gadara. His own writings are lost, but his admirers and imitators mix seriousness and mocking in dialogues, presenting parodies before a background of diatribe, meaning one should begin to question approved truths, in this case to form a didactic set of knowledge.
In Rome, the first to discuss satire critically was Quintilian, who invented the term to describe the writings of Lucilius. Prominent satirists from Roman antiquity include Horace and Juvenal, who were active during the early days of the Roman Empire and are the two most influential Latin satirists. Other important Roman satirists are Lucilius and Persius.
Later in the 16th century, most would believe that the term satire came from the Greek satyr; satyrs were the companions of Dionysos and central characters of the satyr plays of the theatre of ancient Greece. Its derivatives satirical and satirise are indeed Greek suffixes, but the style of the Roman satire is rather linked to the satira, or satura lanx, a "dish of fruits" resembling the colourful mockings or figuratively a "medley". Pliny reports that the 6th century BC poet Hipponax wrote satirae that were so cruel that the offended hanged themselves. The confusion with the satyr supported the understanding of satire as biting, like Juvenal, and not mild, like Horace, and this is reflected in literary criticism and method in Early Modern Europe until the 17th century.
Criticism of Roman emperors (notably by Horace on Augustus) needed to be presented in veiled ironical terms - but the term when applied to Latin works actually titled as "satires" 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.
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.
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.
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). In the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th century advocating rationality, began the breakthrough of English satire, largely due to the creation of Tory and Whig groups and the necessity to convey the true meaning of criticism, especially true for Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Here, astute and biting satire of institutions and individuals became a popular weapon. Although Isaac Casaubon discovered and published Quintilian's writing and presented the original meaning of the term (satira, not satyr), Early Modern satire was already an established genre, but the sense of wittiness (reflecting the "dishfull of fruits") became more important again.
Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest of Anglo-Irish satirists, and one of the first to practise modern journalistic satire. For instance, his A Modest Proposal suggests that poor Irish parents be encouraged to sell their own children as food, while his The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters says that dissenters (from established Church doctrine) are to be vigorously persecuted. In his book Gulliver's Travels he writes about the flaws in human society in general and English society in particular. Swift creates a moral fiction, for instance a world in which parents do not have their most obvious responsibility, which is to protect their children from harm, or in which freedom of religion is reduced to the freedom to conform. His purpose is of course to attack indifference to the plight of the desperately poor, and to advocate freedom of conscience.
John Dryden also wrote an influential essay on satire that helped fix its definition in the literary world.
Mark Twain was a great American satirist: his novel Huckleberry Finn is set in the antebellum South, where the moral values Twain wishes to promote are completely turned on their heads. His hero, Huck, is a rather simple but good-hearted lad who is ashamed of the "sinful temptation" that leads him to help a runaway slave. In fact his conscience – warped by the distorted moral world he has grown up in, often bothers him most when he is at his best. Ironically, he is prepared to do good, believing it to be wrong.
Twain's younger contemporary Ambrose Bierce gained notoriety as a cynic, pessimist and black humourist with his dark, bitterly ironic stories, many set during the American Civil War, which satirized the limitations of human perception and reason. Bierce's most famous work of satire is probably The Devil's Dictionary, in which the definitions mock cant, hypocrisy and received wisdom.
Perhaps the most enduring examples of Victorian satire, however, are to be found in the Savoy Operas of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. In fact, in The Yeomen of the Guard, a jester is given lines that paint a very neat picture of the method and purpose of the satirist, and might almost be taken as a statement of Gilbert's own intent:
The film Dr. Strangelove from 1964 was a popular satire on the Cold War. A more humorous brand of satire enjoyed a renaissance in the UK in the early 1960s with the Satire Boom, led by such luminaries as Peter Cook, John Cleese, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, David Frost, Eleanor Bron and Dudley Moore and the television programme That Was The Week That Was.
Stephen Colbert’s television programme The Colbert Report is instructive in the methods of contemporary American satire. Colbert's character is an opinionated and self-righteous commentator who, in his TV interviews, interrupts people, points and wags his finger at them, and "unwittingly" uses every logical fallacy known to man. In doing so, he demonstrates the principle of modern American political satire: the ridicule of the actions of politicians and other public figures by taking all their statements and purported beliefs to their furthest (supposedly) logical conclusion, thus revealing their perceived hypocrisy. Other political satire includes various political causes in the past, including the relatively successful Polish Beer-Lovers' Party and the joke political candidates Molly the Dog and Brian Miner .
Cartoonists often use satire as well as straight humour. Al Capp's satirical comic strip Li'l Abner was censored in September of 1947. The controversy, as reported in Time, centered around Capp's portrayal of the US Senate. Said Edward Leech of Scripps-Howard, "We don't think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks... boobs and undesirables." Walt Kelly's Pogo was likewise censored in 1952 over his overt satire of Senator Joe McCarthy, caricatured in his comic strip as "Simple J. Malarky". Garry Trudeau, whose comic strip Doonesbury has charted and recorded many American follies for the last generation, deals with story lines such as Vietnam (and now, Iraq), dumbed-down education, and over-eating at "McFriendly's". Trudeau exemplifies humour mixed with criticism. Recently, one of his gay characters lamented that because he was not legally married to his partner, he was deprived of the "exquisite agony" of experiencing a nasty and painful divorce like heterosexuals. This, of course, satirized the claim that gay unions would denigrate the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Doonesbury also presents an example of how satire can cause social change. The comic strip satirized a Florida county that had a law requiring minorities to have a passcard in the area; the law was soon repealed with an act nicknamed the Doonesbury Act.
Like some literary predecessors, many recent television "satires" contain strong elements of parody and caricature; for instance the popular animated series The Simpsons and South Park both parody modern family and social life by taking their assumptions to the extreme; both have led to the creation of similar series. As well as the purely humorous effect of this sort of thing, they often strongly criticise various phenomena in politics, economic life, religion and many other aspects of society, and thus qualify as "satirical". Due to their animated nature, these shows can easily use images of public figures and generally have greater freedom to do so than conventional shows using live actors.
Other satires are on the list of satirists and satires.
Because satire often combines anger and humour it can be profoundly disturbing - because it is essentially ironic or sarcastic, it is often misunderstood. In an interview with Wikinews, Sean Mills, President of The Onion, said angry letters about their news parody always carried the same message. "It’s whatever affects that person," said Mills. "So it’s like, 'I love it when you make a joke about murder or rape, but if you talk about cancer, well my brother has cancer and that’s not funny to me.' Or someone else can say, 'Cancer’s hilarious, but don’t talk about rape because my cousin got raped.' I'm using extreme examples, but whatever it is, if it affects somebody personally, they tend to be more sensitive about it."
Common uncomprehending responses to satire include revulsion (accusations of poor taste, or that it's "just not funny" for instance), to the idea that the satirist actually does support the ideas, policies, or people he is attacking. For instance, at the time of its publication, many people misunderstood Swift’s purpose in "A Modest Proposal" – assuming it to be a serious recommendation of economically-motivated cannibalism. Again, some critics of Mark Twain see Huckleberry Finn as racist and offensive, missing the point that its author clearly intended it to be satire (racism being in fact only one of a number of Mark Twain's known pet bugbears attacked in Huckleberry Finn).
In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift and the Bishop of London George Abbot, whose offices had the function of licensing books for publication in England, issued a decree banning verse satire. The decree ordered the burning of certain volumes of satire by John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Joseph Hall, and others; it also required histories and plays to be specially approved by a member of the Queen's Privy Council, and it prohibited the future printing of satire in verse. The motives for the ban are obscure, particularly since some of the books banned had been licensed by the same authorities less than a year earlier. Various scholars have argued that the target was obscenity, libel, or sedition. It seems likely that lingering anxiety about the Martin Marprelate controversy, in which the bishops themselves had employed satirists, played a role; both Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, two of the key figures in that controversy, suffered a complete ban on all their works. In the event, though, the ban was little enforced, even by the licensing authority itself.
In Italy the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi attacked RAI Television's satirical series, Raiot, Daniele Luttazzi's Satyricon, Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro's Sciuscià, even a special Blob series on Berlusconi himself, by arguing that they were vulgar and full of disrespect to the government. He claimed that he would sue the RAI for 21,000,000 Euros if the show went on. RAI stopped the show. Sabina Guzzanti, creator of the show, went to court to proceed with the show and won the case. However, the show never went on air again.
In 2001 the British television network Channel 4 aired a special edition of the spoof current affairs series Brass Eye, which was intended to mock and satirize the fascination of modern journalism with child molesters and pedophiles. The TV network received an enormous number of complaints from members of the public, who were outraged that the show would mock a subject considered by many to be too "serious" to be the subject of humour.
In 2005, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy caused global protests by offended Muslims and violent attacks with many fatalities in the Near East. It was not the first case of Muslim protests against criticism in the form of satire, but the Western world was surprised by the hostility of the reaction: Any country's flag in which a newspaper chose to publish the parodies was being burnt in a Near East country, then embassies were attacked, killing 139 people in mainly four countries (see article); politicians throughout Europe agreed that satire was an aspect of the freedom of speech, and therefore to be a protected means of dialogue. Iran threatened to start an International Holocaust Cartoon Competition, which was immediately responded to by Jews with a Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoons Contest. Although not really satirical, the response to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses from 1988 was similarly violent; Khomeinei responded with a fatwa, death sentence, for the author, resulting in a 10-year breach of Irano-British diplomatic relations and a continued threat to the author's life.
In 2006 British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen released Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan a "mockumentary" that satirized everyone, from high society to frat boys. Criticism of the film was heavy, from claims of antisemitism (despite the fact Cohen is Jewish), to the massive boycott of the film by the Kazakh government; the film itself had been a reaction to a longer quarrel between the government and the comedian.
In 2008, the cover of the New Yorker magazine was denounced as "tasteless" by Democratic party candidate Barack Obama's campaign workers. The editor David Remnick explained that the controversial illustration by Barry Blitt on the July cover was meant to be satire, and mocked the right wing's perception of the formidable couple. They were portrayed burning the flag in the fireplace of the Oval Office, with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden over their mantle, performing a fist bump. Obama wears a turban; his wife Michelle, sporting a full Afro, wears combat boots and camouflage, with a kalashnikov assault rifle slung over her shoulder. Many people did not get the joke, and the image was quickly circulated around the world.
Theories/Critical approaches to satire as a genre:
The Plot of Satire.