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satire, term applied to any work of literature or art whose objective is ridicule. It is more easily recognized than defined. From ancient times satirists have shared a common aim: to expose foolishness in all its guises—vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry, sentimentality—and to effect reform through such exposure. The many diverse forms their statements have taken reflect the origin of the word satire, which is derived from the Latin satura, meaning “dish of mixed fruits,” hence a medley.

Classical Satirists

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.

The Golden Age of 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.

The Nineteenth Century

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.

The Twentieth Century

Although 20th-century satire continued 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 discerned some shifts in its source. In some instances the audience, rather than the artist, became the satirist. 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 was 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), sought to confuse its audience by presenting the fraudulent as a true work of art, thus rendering the whole concept of “art” questionable. More conventional 20th-century satirists of note were 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a form of the comic, in which the object described (and criticized) receives a ruthless, devastating reinterpretation that is resolved by laughter, open or concealed (“muffled”); a specific method of artistic reproduction of reality, in which images that evoke laughter and ridicule (the formal aspect of art) are used to reveal the distorted, absurd, internally unstable character of reality (the content aspect).

Unlike a straightforward exposé, artistic satire appears to have two plot lines: the comic development of events on the first level is predetermined by certain dramatic or tragic collisions in the “subtext,” in that which is implied. Humor and irony, other forms of the comic used in satirical works, also have two levels. However, in satire proper, both levels, the visible and the concealed, are usually treated negatively. In humor, they are treated positively, and in irony, a positive external theme is combined with a negative underlying one.

Satire is an essential weapon in the social struggle, but its perception as such at the appropriate time depends on historical, national, and social circumstances. The more popular and universal the ideal for which the satirist evokes negative laughter, the more vital the satire is, and the greater its revitalizing capacity. Satire is assigned the tremendous aesthetic task of arousing and activating our recollection of excellence (the good, the true, the beautiful), which is offended by baseness, stupidity, and vice. By relegating “everything outdated to the kingdom of shadows” (M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin), by spiritually “shaming” the reader, and by purging those who laugh, satire defends the positive and the truly vital. J. C. F. von Schiller, the first to consider satire an aesthetic category, wrote the classic definition of the term: “In satire, imperfect reality is juxtaposed to the ideal, the highest reality” (“O naivnoi i sentimental’noi poezii” [On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry], in Stat’i po estetike, Moscow-Leningrad, 1935, p. 344). However, the satirist’s ideal is expressed through an “anti-ideal”—through the flagrantly comical absence of the ideal in the target of the exposé.

Uncompromising judgments about the object of ridicule and open tendentiousness are characteristic of satire as a mode of expressing the author’s individuality, which endeavors to establish an insurmountable barrier between the world and the object exposed. Moreover, the author strives, “by the force of subjective invention, lightning thoughts, and striking methods of interpretation, to break down everything that wants to become objective and acquire the solid look of reality” (Hegel, Estetika, vol. 2, Moscow, 1969, p. 312). The subjective slant of satire gives it the features of a negative romanticism.

In ancient Roman literature, satire was clearly recognized as an accusatory, ridiculing genre of lyric. Later, although satire preserved features of lyricism, it lost its strict generic definition and became a literary type that determined the specific characteristics of many genres, including the fable, epigram, burlesque, pamphlet, feuilleton, and satirical novel.

Satirists “model” their object, creating an image with a high degree of artificiality that is achieved by the “directed distortion” of the real outlines of the phenomenon, using exaggeration, emphasis, hyperbole, and the grotesque. “Experimental” satire shapes a work on the basis of a fantastic assumption that permits an author to conduct a rationalistic investigation of the object. In this type of satire, the character is a personified logical concept (Organchik by Saltykov-Shchedrin), and the plot is a system of intellectual calculations translated into “artistic language” (Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). A favorite figure in rationalistic satire is the observer-hero who mockingly “collects” evidence.

Another variety of satire ridicules an inadequate person, investigating the nature of evil on the psychological level (Salty-kov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlev Family and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). In this case typification depends entirely on the accuracy and “plausibility” of external and characterizing details.

”Plausible implausibility” characterizes parodic, ironic satire, with its wealth of life-duplicating motifs: deliberate deceptions, games and theatrical situations, elements of compositional symmetry, and “doubles.” Parodic, ironic satire is often similar to humor (for example, in Dickens), as well as other varieties of satire.

The origin of satiric images in antiquity is associated with a period when art was syncretic and was a crystallization of popular games and religious activities. Satirical drama, the Attic comedy, and the parody of the heroic epic (the Battle of the Frogs and the Mice) developed out of folklore. The genre known as Menippean satire appeared later. Satire as a specific literary genre emerged in ancient Rome (Gaius Lucilius’ exposés, Horace’s moralistic satires, and Juvenal’s civic satires). Customs were brilliantly ridiculed in Menippean novels, such as Petroni-us’ Satyricon and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, as well as in the comedies of Plautus and Terence.

The development of the anecdote, the fabliau, the comic animal epos, and the vulgar farce is associated with the rise of the medieval cities. The Renaissance was marked by a satirical examination of the ideological precepts of the Middle Ages (the anonymous French political satire, La Satire Ménipée, and the second part of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly). Satirical episodes embodying the multifaceted elements of the comic and promoting the downfall of ideas hostile to humanism are encountered in the greatest works of the period, including Boccaccio’s Decameron, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Shakespeare’s comedies.

Typical of classicism were the satirical comedy, with strictly delineated, stereotypical characters (Molière), and poetic genres, such as the satire, fable, maxim, and travesty. In the 17th and 18th centuries the comic picaresque novel became a stronger vehicle of the exposé. Among the most outstanding examples are the baroque novels of F. Quevedo y Villegas and H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen and Enlightenment novels by A. R. Lesage and T. Smollett. In their comedies, P. de Beaumarchais and R. B. Sheridan developed the social satire characteristic of Molière and Spanish comedies. The ideologists of the Enlightenment, including Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and especially Swift, created the classic models of satire, giving a philosophical interpretation to the fatal imperfection of the existing world.

The brilliant representatives of romantic irony, Byron, E. T. A. Hoffman, and H. Heine, typically perceived life in both a universally comic and a socially satirical light. With the development of critical realism, pure satire declined, but elements of satire penetrated all prose genres (Dickens and Thackeray). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries satire was refined in the creative work of M. Twain, A. France, H. G. Wells, K. Čapek, J. Hašek, G. K. Chesterton, B. Shaw, H. Mann, and B. Brecht, who preserve a belief in an objective ideal even as they expose the flaws of contemporary civilization, which is going through a crisis. By contrast, modernist satire, which elaborates the problem of human alienation in bourgeois and totalitarian society, is permeated with a feeling of despair or a sense of the absurd. Ionesco’s works are representative of this trend. In the last 50 years satire has intruded into science fiction, as is evident in works by A. Huxley, I. Azimov, and K. Vonnegut.

Satirical exposés of social injustice or the power of the rich were typical of many ancient works of Oriental folklore, including the Thousand and One Nights, the Panchatantra, anecdotes about Nasreddin, and the parables of various peoples. Literary satire dates from antiquity (Dandin, Bhartrhari, and Haribha-dra Suri in Indian literature; Wang Wei and P’u Sung-ling in Chinese literature; and Suzani, Gurgani, Ubeid, and Zakani in Persian literature). Many of the phenomena of Oriental satire correspond to European types of satire. For example, schematic allegories were typical of both Oriental and Western satire in the early period.

In Russian literature, the first clear example of satire is the satirical tale of the late 17th century. The satire of social exposé was developed by classical and Enlightenment writers, including A. D. Kantemir, A. P. Sumarokov, D. I. Fonvizin, N. I. No-vikov, and A. N. Radishchev. I. A. Krylov’s fables, G. R. Der-zhavin’s satirical poems, and V. T. Narezhnyi’s novels were the artistic prelude to the flowering of satire in the 19th century. A. S. Griboedov created satirical types that became part of the language, representing eternal Russian characters. Gogol, who viewed the Russian social order satirically “from one side” in The Inspector-General and Dead Souls, left a comic legacy rich in aesthetic tone and national in form. Saltykov-Shchedrin ruthlessly exposed social flaws “from top to bottom,” from the point of view of revolutionary democracy (The Golovlev Family and The History of a Town, for example).

The prerevolutionary works of Gorky, including his satirical tales, and V. V. Mayakovsky, including his sarcastic “hymns,” stand on the threshold of Soviet satire. In Soviet literature the satirical principle has been expressed in various genres, including political verse (V. Mayakovsky), short stories and novellas (M. Zoshchenko and A. Platonov), comedy (Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and The Bathhouse and E. Shvarts’ “Shadow” and “The Naked King”), the novel (I. Ehrenburg, I. Il’f and E. Petrov, and M. Bulgakov, as well as science fiction by the brothers A. Strugatskii and B. Strugatskii), and parody and epigrams (A. Arkhangel’skii). The development of Soviet satire was accompanied by sharp debates concerning its character and functions.

Satire in the dramatic arts reflects the development of satirical literature. The most significant satirical dramas become social events after their presentation in the theater. This is equally true of the comedies of Aristophanes, Molière, Beaumarchais, A. V. Sukhovo-Kobylin, and Mayakovsky. The motion-picture comedy, which developed in the early 1920’s, is represented by entertaining works and by truly satirical ones, such as Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Great Dictator and the Soviet films St. Jorgan’s Day and Welcome.

In the representational arts the most highly developed satirical genre is the caricature (in the narrow sense), in which the text plays an important role. Satirical graphics also include book illustrations (P. M. Boklevskii’s drawings for Dead Souls, illustrations by K. P. Rotov and the Kukryniksy for The Little Golden Calf). Satirical motifs also appear in painting (Goya’s Saturn). However, in painting, satire usually takes the form of direct, humorless exposés (P. A. Fedotov’s The Major’s Courtship). Television, an art that possesses unlimited potential for reportage, has opened new possibilities for satire.


Belinskii, V. G. “Gore ot uma.” Poln. sobr. sock, vol. 3. Moscow, 1953.
Belinskii, V. G. “Pokhozhdeniia Chichikova, ili Mertvye dushi.” Ibid. vol. 6. Moscow, 1955.
Bergson, H. Smekhv zhizni i na stsene. St. Petersburg, 1900. (Translated from French.)
Bakhtin, M. M. Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable. Moscow, 1965.
Pinskii, L. E. “Iumor.” In Kratkaia literaturnaia entsiklopediia, vol. 8. Moscow, 1975.
Aubouin, E. Les Genres du risible. Marseille, 1948.
Kayser, W. Das Groteske in Malerei und Dichtung. Hamburg, 1960.
Himmel, H. “Satire.” In Lexikon der Weltliteratur im 20 Jahrhundert, vol 2. Vienna, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Arbuthnot, Mr
. cliché expert who spoke exclusively in the clichés of each subject on which he was interviewed. [Am. Lit.: Frank Sullivan columns in The New Yorker]
Clouds, The
attacks Socrates and his philosophy. [Gk. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 144]
Frogs, The
lampoons the plays of Euripides and his advanced thinking. [Gk. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 276]
Joseph Andrews
satirizes the sentimentality of contemporary fiction. [Br. Lit.: Fielding Joseph Andrews]
Knight of the Burning Pestle, The
play by Beaumont and Fletcher burlesques the excesses of tales of chivalry. [Br. Drama: Haydn & Fuller, 399]
medical farce on the horrors of war. [Am. Cinema and TV: Halliwell, 474]
comic strip rife with political satire. [Comics: Berger, 172]
Praise of Folly, The
uses tongue-in-cheek praise to satirize contemporary customs, institutions, and beliefs. [Dutch Philos.: Erasmus The Praise of Folly in Haydn & Fuller, 607]
Scourge of Princes
Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), wrote wicked satires on nobles and notables. [Ital. Lit.: Benét, 47]
Teufelsdrockh, Herr
fictitious professor, Carlyle’s mouthpiece for criticism of Victorian life. [Br. Lit.: Sartor Resartus]
Troilus and Cressida
Homer’s heroes are reduced in character and satirized. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida]
Ubu Roi
burlesques bourgeois values through outlandish political adventurism, including assassination, mock heroics, and buffoonery. [Fr. Drama: Alfred Jarry Ubu Roi in Benét, 1036]
Zuleika Dobson
burlesques sentimental novels of the Edwardian era. [Br. Lit.: Magill II, 1169]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a novel, play, entertainment, etc., in which topical issues, folly, or evil are held up to scorn by means of ridicule and irony
2. the genre constituted by such works
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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