“Fools are my theme, let satire be my song”
– Lord Byron
Witty and humorous, interspersed with a concoction of irony, parody, double entendre and sarcasm, satires have been a literary favorite since the very inception of literature itself. A satire is basically a critical exposition in the form of prose, poetry or play through mockery, that generally revolves around criticism of social or political machinery and members therein, with the fundamental motive of inducing reformation. A satire, therefore, is not a hollow ridicule but ridicule with a cause.
Satires originated in ancient Greece, and were typically employed in comedies and initially assumed the form of outright slander and vulgarity at political senators. Plays of Greek Old Comedy enjoyed considerable freedom in this respect due to the liberal nature of Greek society. However, following the Macedonian invasion, such outright liberties were curbed and this gave rise to the subtle satirical styles of New Comedy that shifted its focus from the polis (the city state) to the oikos (the domestic). Several stork characters emerged as the face of ridicule, such as the miserly old man or the ‘agelast’. Rome adopted the subtle trend soon and came up with its own brand of new comedy led by Plautus and Terence.
By and far however, the Roman era of subtle satires was spearheaded by Horace, who clearly spelled out his intentions to not be malicious. When one truly examines the reason behind the subtlety of such satires, it can be evidently understood by reflecting on the vigilant nature of the Roman society. Horace himself, was in fact a patron writer, and could not afford to take the liberties of unchecked slander. He gave rise to a branch of satirical literature known as Horatian satires that makes use of gentle, light-hearted humor to direct criticism. Examples include Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the renowned Ig Nobel Prizes.
Horace’s descendant did not follow from his footsteps. Juvenal was unabashed in his ridicule- he was abrasive and contemptuous, and directedly presented his writings as a criticism of the existing institutions. His outright style established the second sub-division within the satirical genre- the Juvenalian satire. This style was adopted in turn by several renowned satirists and novelists such as Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, William Golding in Lord of the Flies, George Orwell and Jonathan Swift, that exposed with cutting intensity and unconcealed honesty the lack of political acumen in the polis, the lack of glory in war, and the lack of humanity in human beings themselves. It is this branch of satirical writing that gained a poignant edge over mere comedies, and often presented grim realities through exaggeration or diminution.
With the progression of time, satires were absorbed into various forms in modern literature including short stories and poems. Social plays almost always had a satirical intent, and it became an excellent way to portray gaps in the society. In fact, satires have a rather remarkable role to play even beyond providing mere literary joy. They are one of the earliest modes of social study, and chalk out a clear picture of a particular society in various ways, notably by showing the levels of tolerance within it. They spark public discourse in the societal realm and promote the healthy questioning of those in authority, thus ensuring the latter are accountable to the common folk.Satires also reduce social tension. They ensure that pressing issues of the society are addressed and vented on a public platform with considerably less disturbance than a violent revolution that would be an inevitable consequence of pent up anger. Additionally, they also remind those in power of their fallacies, and induce within them the desire to change.
Today, even news articles and magazine strips of comics make use of satire. It has served for generations as a sophisticated and artistic way of ridiculing the worst of the society, with wit or with pathos used to reflect on our reality. Like several genres within literature, a satire holds up a mirror to humanity, shows us the terrible ways in which we often go wrong, and gives us the faith to change it.
-Contributed by Tinka Dubey
Picture Credits: radonmclean.org