Satire Through the Ages

Satire- is a form of humor that uses wit to characterize behavior. Sometimes the wit is ironic or sarcastic. While the authors or performers use humor, their main objective is not to make people laugh. It is instead used to provide social criticism on human behavior and issues of the day. Lewis' Carroll's works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are forms of satire. Carroll and Sir John Tenniel, the book's illustrator used their works to mock people and customs in the Victorian era. The Lion and the Unicorn in Looking Glass for example were drawn to resemble two prominent politicians of the day, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Elwart Gladstone. Many of the most memorable scenes such as the Knave of Heart's trial at the end of Wonderland mock Victorian conventions such as courtroom proceedings. While some have dismissed the Alice books as nothing but nonsense, Carroll and Tenniel seem to suggest that their world makes no more sense than the real world does with its rigid rules and conventions.
Carroll and Tenniel were not the only satirists. In fact, they are one of many who have used their gifts of writing, illustration, and performing arts to make audience's laugh, but most imporantly make them think about current issues.
Many of the earliest satirists were active during the Roman empire. Among them was Seneca The Younger,(c. 1 B.C.-65 A.D.) His work, Apocolocynotosis, tell of the death and deification of Emperor Claudius. Rather than writing of a noble emperor who dies a tragic death and is elevated to godhood, Seneca takes the opportunity to mock Claudius' limp walk, his stammering, and his unattractive appearance in these lines:
"Declare with speed what spot you claim by birth.
Or with this club fall stricken to the earth!
This club hath ofttimes slaughtered haughty kings!
Why mumble unintelligible things?
What land, what tribe produced that shaking head?
Declare it!"
(Apocolocynotosis, Virg. Geog. iv 90)
He also satirizes the transition in the Underworld to godhood by implying that it is not as grand as other Romans would believe:

All on a sudden who should turn up but Caligula, and claims the man for a slave: brings witnesses, who said they had seen him being flogged, caned, fisticuffed by him. He is handed over to Caligula, and Caligula makes him a present to Aeacus. Aeacus delivers him to his freedman Menander, to be his law-clerk. (Apocolocynotosis, II ix. 85)

. During this time, noble Romans were declared gods and goddesses after their deaths. Seneca trivializes Claudius' fate as becoming former Emperor Caligula's slave and to be a law-clerk. Seneca points out what he may have seen as the ridiculousness of deifiying late emperors by instead turning Claudius into the lowest class as a slave instead of elevating him to godhood.
During the Middle Ages, traveling troupes called Commedia dell-arte presented characters based on noblepeople, doctors, and servants often emphazing their fobiles and negative attributes such as idleness, deceit, and/or gullibility and putting them in ridiculous and hilarious situations. Court jesters and fools were often hired by kings and noblepeople to tell jokes and impersonate other people to reveal ridiculous behaviorisms of the royals.
The jester or the fool was often the only person who could get away with criticizing the royals and still were permitted to keep their heads.
During the Renaissance, many playwrights used humor and satire in their writing either to mock other writers or situations that were found in other plays or in real life. William Shakespeare often used his writing in clever ways to mock the society around him. One of his sonnets, Sonnet 130 sometimes called "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun," makes fun of courtly love poems which overdramatize the narrator's true love's beauty and grace:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.
Shakespeare's narrator gives his mistress a more realistic appearance such as bad breath, wired hair, and an annoying voice. 
This not only contrasts her with the far-off beauty and almost goddess behaviors of Medieval beauties,
but it makes her a stronger more realistic person. In fact the sonnet makes her more approachable and perhaps better loved
 because the narrator knows both her flaws and her virtues than a knight would to his fair noble lady. 
Shakespeare also used the characters in his plays to mock Renaissance behavior. The phrase "all the world is a stage"
 was well-known in Shakespeare's day, but in his play, As You Like It, describes life as different
stages of  puking infants, lovestruck romantics,  soldiers and judges who are more interested in their appearances and
 reputations than doing anything useful or important in their lives, and finally as senile older people who need
as much attention or the infants:
All the world’s a stage,
        And all the men and women merely players;
        They have their exits and their entrances,
        And one man in his time plays many parts,                       
5      His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
        Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
        And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
        And shining morning face, creeping like snail
        Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,  
10    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
        Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
        Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, 
        Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
        Seeking the bubble reputation
15    Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
        In fair round belly with good capon lined,
        With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, 
        Full of wise saws and modern instances;
        And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
20    Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
        With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
        His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
        For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
        Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
25    And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
        That ends this strange eventful history,
        Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
        Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

 Jacques (Act II. Scene VII. 139-165)



 Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, novelists and poets continued to use wit and biting humor in their writings to satirize
 political and social situations. Political cartoons were created roughly in the 18th century, and were 
placed in newspapers. Cartoonists such as Thomas Nast (1840-1902) made fun of political figures. One of Nast's frequent 
targets for ridicule was Boss William Mangear Tweed, a politician who ran an influential political machine
known as Tammany Hall, in the late 19th-early 20th century. Nast's used his illustrations to mock Tweed's ambitions in
 controlling many social and political institutions as well as his activities such as buying votes. 
This illustration shows Tweed pretending to be a caretaker to public schoolchildren but 
instead welcoming the alligators as they plan to devour the children. Nast 
portrays Tweed as posing as a protector but in reality being as dangerous as the foes that 
he claims that he is protecting people from. 


Punch Magazine was established in 1841 in Great Britain. It was a humor magazine that was established to poke

fun at class distinctions, politics, and other aspects of 19th century English life. Among the contributors

were writers such as Charles Dickens, Kingsley Amis, A.A. Milne as well as

illustrators such as E.H. Shephard, Arthur Rackham, and Sir John Tenniel. This is one

of Tenniel's illustrations for Punch. It satirizes the American Civil War as two

small boys fighting and England as a cranky old man telling them

to stop fighting near him or he will be fierce. This mocks both the American

situation as immature and England's involvement as a stern father figure that

refuses to get involved.



 Filmmakers got into the act of satire in the 20th century. Comics were particularly prominent in satirical situations.

Though they had different styles of comedy, Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers used humor to

achieve similar means. Chaplin was mostly known for his career in silent films often

putting his character, The Little Tramp into hilarious situations where

he encountered dishonest millionaires, corrupt political figures, and other people

that Chaplin targeted for ridicule. The Marx Brothers were largely verbal

comedians, particularly Groucho Marx who often used verbal characters who insulted

and ridiculed others to make points on life.

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In their roles as Adenoid Hynkel and Rufus T. Firefly, respectively, Chaplin and Marx

point out the fobiles and follies in modern politics. Chaplin's The

Great Dictator shows Hynkel, an obvious parody of Adolf Hitler, as a small child

playing with the globe like a toy. He turns Hitler into an immature brat

that wants to keep the world in his command. Marx's Firefly in Duck Soup is more

verbal finding humor by mocking upperclass people who cozy up to the figures in

charge and their conventions of respect. The Marx Brothers and Chaplin found humor in

political situations like war and conquest to point out that they make no more sense

in the real world than they do in the satirical world, in which their fictional

counterparts reside.



Satire became even more biting and critical in the 1960's when comedians such as

George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, Dan Rowan, and Dick Martin used their

television shows and appearances to criticize hot-button issues such as the Vietnam

War, sexuality, drugs, and racism. Monty Python's Flying Circus ran from

1969-1974 and made fun of everything from entertainers, intellectualism, youthful

rebellion, and everything else in between. One of their sketches The Election

Night Special finds humor in elections and political parties:


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While the Pythons never state which political position, Conservatives or Liberals

are the Sensible or Silly Parties, their sketch implies that it doesn't matter.

They find humor in the whole idea of elections and see the whole political situation

as a circus of humorous figures trying to make their names known.

In the 21st century, many humorists take mocking approaches at current political

situations. This satire has even found its way into popular jargon. Comedian,

Stephen Colbert has made a reputation of satirizing conservative figures such as

Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly



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 Colbert plays a conservative talk show host as an overtly naive fool who uses words

such as "truthiness" and "falsiness" as code words for his rigid beliefs.

The phrase "truthiness," a truth that someone invariably knows from their gut was

named as Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster in 2006 and is now a

dictionary definition. The word alone conjures ideas of an anti-intellectual who

refuses to evaluate or analyze his beliefs. Instead, these people prefer to

blindly follow a belief system without considering the alternatives.


Satire has played a huge part of humor and daily life. Satirists continue to use

their gifts to make people view the world differently and hopefully change it

for the better.



Chase, William Merrit. Keying Up the Court Jester. 1875.

Colbert, Stephen. "We Need to Restore Truthiness". The Colbert Report. 2010.

Duck Soup. dir. Leo McCarey. 1933.

"Election Night Special." Monty Python's Flying Circus. 1970.

Great Dictator, The. dir. Charles Chaplin. 1940.

Nast, Thomas. American River Ganges. 1875.

Seneca The Younger. Apocolocynotosis.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It.

------------- --------. Sonnet 130.

Tenniel, John. John Bull's Neutrality. 1863.

------------. The Lion and The Unicorn. 1871.