Definition of Satire
Satire is a literary device for the artful ridicule of a folly or vice as a means of exposing or correcting it. The subject of satire is generally human frailty, as it manifests in people’s behavior or ideas as well as societal institutions or other creations. Satire utilizes tones of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation towards a flawed subject with the hope of creating awareness and subsequent change.
For example, one of the most well-known satirical literary works is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In his novel, Huxley satirizes most of the social conventions and institutions considered sacred and held dear by an “enlightened” Western society. This includes religion, monogamy, social equality, and the blessing of childbirth. In the novel, these conventions and institutions are turned upside down such that the characters embrace drug culture, social class separation, casual sex, and governmental control. Huxley satirizes contemporary society in order to expose for the reader its arbitrary and often hypocritical moral structures.
Common Examples of Satire
Many common forms of media, art, and entertainment reflect satire, including movies, magazines, newspapers, novels, poetry, short fiction, drama, and even visual art. Satire can be overt or subtle, but it is prevalent throughout history and in popular culture. Here are some common and familiar examples of satire:
- political cartoons–satirize political events and/or politicians
- The Onion–American digital media and newspaper company that satirizes everyday news on an international, national, and local level
- Family Guy–animated series that satirizes American middle class society and conventions
- The Colbert Report–comedy television series that satirized news and late-night talk show programs
- Alice in Wonderlandj–novel by Lewis Carroll that satirizes corrupt political and judicial system of Victorian England
- The Importance of Being Earnest–dramatic satire by Oscar Wilde of love and marriage cultural norms during Victorian Age
- Shrek–movie that satirizes fairy tales
- Fountain–famous urinal artwork by Marcel Duchamp satirizing American avant-garde art
- The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd–poem by Sir Walter Raleigh satirizing pastoral tradition of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”
- 2BR02B–short story by Kurt Vonnegut satirizing meaning of life, death, and individuality
- Mad Magazine–satirized pop culture and politics
- Deadpool–movie that satirizes super hero genre
- A Modest Proposal (For Preventing The Children Of Poor People From Being A Burthen To Their Parents Or Country, And For Making Them Beneficial To The Publick)–essay by Jonathan Swift satirizing 18th Century England’s legal and economic exploitation of Ireland
- Scream–movie satirizing horror genre
- Mr. Robinson–character played by Eddie Murphy satirizing Mister Rogers and his children’s television program
Examples of Satirical Television Programs
Many television programs are based in satire. They appeal to audiences with their combination of scrutiny, humor, and criticism of politics, popular culture, social conventions, human nature, media, and even television itself. Here are some examples of satirical television programs:
- The Daily Show
- South Park
- The Office
- Monty Python’s Flying Circus
- Saturday Night Live
- The Simpsons
- The Soup
- American Dad
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
- Married with Children
Famous Examples of Quotes about Satire
One way to get a better understanding of the craft, purpose, and effect of satire is through the words of satirists themselves. Here are some famous quotes about satire:
- Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it. (Lenny Bruce)
- Tomorrow is a satire on today, and shows its weakness. (Edward Young)
- Satire is a lesson, parody is a game. (Vladimir Nabokov)
- You can’t debate satire. Either you get it or you don’t. (Michael Moore)
- I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel–it’s vulgar. (Molly Ivins)
- Fools are my theme, let satire be my song. (Lord Byron)
- I never wanted to do political satire because it seems too surface to me. (Tracey Ullman)
- People say satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the White House. (Robin Williams)
- Praise undeserved, is satire in disguise. (Alexander Pope)
- Satire is a form of social control, it’s what you do. It’s not personal. It’s a job. (Garry Trudeau)
Difference Between Satire and Parody
For some, it can be difficult to distinguish between satire and parody. Both devices utilize humor to convey meaning and fulfill their purpose. However, there are differences between them–particularly in their intentions. Satire intends to ridicule human and/or societal flaws, discrepancies, and inadequacies as a means of provoking an audience and challenging viewpoints. Parody intends to mimic something familiar to an audience as a means of amusement or invoking humor.
Parody primarily relies on audience recognition of what is being mimicked in order to understand the ridicule of the subject. However, the focus of parody tends to be exaggeration or observation at a surface level such as a well-known leader’s mannerisms or pattern of speech. The motive of parody is to generate laughs rather than any deeper understanding.
The focus of satire is a larger scope. Satire relies on audience recognition of a systemic problem underlying the ridicule and humor. Therefore, though satire does intend to be humorous, the motive is a greater common understanding of humanity and society rather than generating laughter.
Overall, as a literary device, satire functions as a means of conveying social commentary and/or criticism on the part of a writer through irony, humor, exaggeration, and other methods. This is effective for readers in that satire can create a critical lens through literature with which to look at human behavior, political structures, social institutions, and even cultural traditions.
It’s essential that writers bear in mind that their audience must have an understanding of the source material that is being satirized. Otherwise, the satirical meaning is lost and ineffective. Therefore, it’s best to be aware of the reader’s ability to discern what elements of human nature, history, experience, or culture are being satirized in the literary work.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating satire into their work:
Create Awareness and Call to Action in Reader
Since a large purpose of satire in literature is to convey social commentary and/or criticism, this allows a writer to create awareness of issues and disparities in society. Satirical literature calls attention to these issues and can make readers aware of something they had not previously considered or understood. This awareness can then engender a call to action in a reader to condemn, attempt to set right, or even think more critically about societal flaws.
Establish Empathy and Reflection for Reader
Many writers consider satire to be a literary device that allows them to hold up a metaphorical mirror to their reader. This allows the reader to experience empathy for the disadvantaged in satirical works, as well as an opportunity to reflect on the reader’s own behavior and/or viewpoint. In other words, if the satire in literature applies to the reader’s behavior or outlook, then they can reflect on their complicity.
Examples of Satire in Literature
Satire is a very effective literary device in its power to portray and reflect social commentary and criticism. Here are some examples of satire and the way it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:
Example 1: Lysistrata (Aristophanes)
LYSISTRATA: May gentle Love and the sweet Cyprian Queen shower seductive charms on our bosoms and all our person. If only we may stir so amorous a feeling among the men that they stand firm as sticks, we shall indeed deserve the name of peace-makers among the Greeks.
In this Greek comedy, the poet Aristophanes creates a female protagonist, Lysistrata, who convinces her fellow women to withhold all sexual interactions from their male partners as a means of influencing and coercing them into ending the Pelopponesian War. In the play, Aristophanes satirizes the war, yet he also satirizes the complexities of male/female relationships and the implied nature of differences between men and women. Lysistrata’s story has continued to be adapted and interpreted across time, indicating that the comedic themes of the original remain fodder for satire.
Example 2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)
Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth
This statement by Lysander in the play reflects Shakespeare’s clever use of satire as a literary device. In fact, the basis of this comedic play is a satire about the way humans foolishly perceive and idealize the concept of romantic love. Lysander’s character reflects this irony by indicating that he has never heard of or read a love story that was not troublesome. Therefore, the idea that the characters in the play are consumed with the romantic notion of love is irrational considering there is no foundational example of successful or “smooth” passionate love on which to base their idealization. Shakespeare satirizes this type of love by poking fun at the foolish behavior exhibited by humans in the name of romance and passion.
Example 3: Unfortunate Coincidence (Dorothy Parker)
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying – –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
Dorothy Parker is one of the most well-known and successful satirists. Her poetry often addresses the theme of love with artistic composition, yet she consistently utilizes her talent for humor and satire to ridicule the genre of romantic poetry and the subject of love itself. This is evident in her poem “Unfortunate Coincidence,” in which she sets the scene of two lovers who have declared their eternal love and passion for each other. Rather than celebrating this romance, Parker ridicules it by warning the “Lady” in the poem that either she or her lover is lying.
Parker’s satire of romantic love calls the reader’s attention to the frequent false hope and promises of romantic love, lovers, and even romantic poetry. This allows the reader to appreciate the artistic nature of the love poem, while simultaneously reaching an understanding that the concept of romantic love is not sustainable and a false reality.