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Political satire has been around for as long as there have been questionable leaders. In some countries, political satire can get you arrested, so its power as a form of expression can’t be overstated.
Political satire is a subgenre of satire. In literature, political satire refers to any instance where real-world political issues or figures are exposed, criticised, or ridiculed through witty techniques such as irony, humour, contrast, and exaggeration.
Let’s begin with a definition of satire.
In literature, satire is a mode of writing that seeks to ridicule, expose, and critique harmful behaviours and actions. This is often done implicitly through the use of humour, irony, contrast and exaggeration.
‘Implicitly’ is a keyword here. Satire does not make an outright judgement of the person or thing being satirised. Rather, it uses literary techniques to create a deeper meaning that goes beyond the surface-level meaning.
Satire can be directed at:
Satire aims to reform the world. Because satires are always critiques of the real world, they force us to examine it critically and to try to make it better.
In a powerful way, the satiric mode is able to expose contradictions and injustices that lurk beneath the surface – such as charismatic politicians who are corrupt or harmless-seeming policies that could have dire consequences – enabling us to make sense of our world.
To understand political satire, we must first understand the relationship between politics and literature. How do we define ‘politics’? Is it an umbrella term for everything to do with authorities, governments, power, and freedom? Well, yes, but it is also more than that.
Literary critic Jacques Rancière argues that politics is a way of ‘framing’ the world.1
So, politics is everything to do with how the world is framed, both tangibly and intangibly.
Political issues include oppression by the state or other powerful groups, institutions, and systems. More specifically, issues such as gender, class, and race are central political issues explored in literature and in political satire.
Rancière argues that literature participates in political discourse. He argues,
literature ‘does’ politics.
By ‘doing’ politics, Rancière means that literature is also engaged in this process of framing reality (in the second sense of the term ‘framing’). Books present or promote a way of seeing the world and thus are always engaged with politics.
Rags-to-riches stories tell us that ‘if you work hard enough, you’ll get financial freedom and you’ll be happy’. This is a way of framing reality, as it implicitly supports the capitalist economic system.
Literature frames the world, but it also has the power to question how reality is framed – for example, by political parties, politicians, governments, institutions, the media, etc.
In turn, literature makes us readers engage with politics. Satire can be used in literary works to critique political issues through mockery.
What makes the satiric mode so apt for exploring political issues? How do satires frame the world, and how do they critique different ‘framings’ of the world?
One of the key aims of satire is to reform the world. In this sense, satirical texts are often politically engaged.
The satiric mode has very flexible political possibilities. It holds up our flawed world and criticises it. Some view satire as a conservative literary mode, as it picks on people who deviate from social norms.
The satirical novel Vile Bodies (1930) by Evelyn Waugh is an illustrative example of this view. The novel satirised the flippant ‘bright young things’ of 1920s London who were shallow and partied too hard.
But satire can also be directed at repressive social and cultural norms and at powerful and corrupt individuals and groups. In this regard, the satiric mode is suited to expressing transgressive and radical sentiments.
Think of George Orwell’s satirical dystopia, 1984 (1949), which is a critique of totalitarianism, i.e., of full governmental control of every area of life.
Political satire is a genre of satire.
In literature, political satire refers to any instance where the inconsistencies and dangers of political issues or figures are exposed, criticised, and ridiculed. This is often done through the witty use of techniques like irony, contrast, and exaggeration.
Other genres of satire are social satire and technological satire. Although these are not synonyms for one another, they can and do overlap.
Political satire seeks to amuse and to unnerve. Political satires often seek to disturb the reader by highlighting corruption or dangerous ideologies.
By doing this, political satire hopes to reform the world.
The main targets of political satire are:
Political satire that is aimed broadly at ideologies and views rather than at specific people is known as Menippean satire.
Menippean satire is an intellectual type of satire that mocks and criticises mental attitudes and ideals rather than people.
Political satire often veers toward the tragic more than toward the comic. Social satire is often more light-hearted, whereas political satire is usually more serious in tone.
However, that’s not to say that political satire can’t be serious and funny at the same time.
The war novel Catch 22 (1961) by Joseph Heller is a satire on the absurdities of war that is considered both comic and tragic. The catch that gives the novel its title refers to a paradoxical rule whereby a man can only be relieved of his army duties by proving that he is sane. He can only do this by asking to be relieved of his duties. He is considered insane if he willingly serves in dangerous missions.
Political satire is often Juvenalian in its tone.
Juvenalian satire is a scathing and unforgiving type of satire that wants to evoke anger and indignation from the reader.
Political satires that display a passionate political view (for example, anti-abortion) can be called Juvenalian.
The golden age of satire took place in the 18th century, at a time when the political landscape changed. The early 18th century saw the rise of the Tory and Whig parties, advances in the printing press that facilitated the printing of newspapers and magazines, and the rise of coffeehouses where literary men could meet and discuss politics. The English public was more politically engaged than before.
It is no wonder that this was the period when satire took off. Satirists like Alexander Pope (author of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and ‘The Dunciad’) and Jonathan Swift (author of ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Gulliver’s Travels) satirised political issues in contemporary English society.
The literary critic Johnathan Greenberg argues that utopia and dystopia originated in political satire, more specifically, in the satires Utopia (1516) by Thomas More and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, which are about made-up journeys to made-up lands with strange, made-up cultures.
Its basic trope is to imagine a fully realized alternative world in order to stage a series of satiric contrasts with the society of the here-and-now.2
Utopias and dystopias are all about holding up the flaws of our current world for criticism through comparison or what we might call satiric contrasts.
Not all dystopias today are political satires, but most dystopias satirise dangerous ideas, political trends, and policies by imagining how they could escalate to create a horrible world.
This makes many utopias and dystopias Menippean satires, as the focus of satire is placed on political ideologies and attitudes rather than on specific people.
Dystopias share satire’s goal of wanting to reform society. They use satire with the aim of curbing harmful political developments.
In their criticism of totalitarianism and other forms of oppression, dystopias often reveal the satiric mode’s transgressive, anti-authoritarian potential.
The main satirical technique used in political satire is contrasts – for example, through exaggeration and irony – which create absurdity.
Political satires, particularly utopias and dystopias, use various forms of contrasts to satirise the dangers and inconsistencies of political ideologies, policies, individuals, and groups.
Political satires use exaggeration. In dystopian books, for example, harmful practices are exaggerated to their full, horrible potential.
The all-powerful state of Oceania in 1984 is an exaggeration of the threat of communism in the 1940s.
Dystopias exaggerate present conditions to highlight how they can escalate to a point of extremity in the real world if left to fester and grow.
Irony is a literary technique that highlights or creates inconsistency between the apparent significance of a statement or event and its contextualised significance.
Irony, when used for the purpose of political satire, is often less comic than in social and Horatian satires and more scathing and bleak.
Some social satires like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are thought of as Horatian satires, which have a light-hearted tone and gently mock without condemning human follies.
Irony is often employed with a tragic tone to mock inconsistencies or dangers in ideologies and the dire consequences they can have. This is especially the case in dystopias.
For example, 1984 (1949) by George Orwell is characterised by the irony of doublethink, but this is an irony almost devoid of humour. In the novel, ‘the Party’ brainwashes the public into believing contradictory statements such as ‘War is Peace’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery’ to be true. This irony has a Juvenalian satiric intent rather than a comic intent.
Contrasts and ironies create absurdity, a characteristic feature of political satires. Absurdity is the quality of ridiculousness created by contrasts and ironies.
An example of absurdity in political satires is Aldous Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World (1932). The novel’s absurdity is created by its ironic exaggerations of the contemporary world. Huxley satirised what he saw as his society’s obsession with pleasure by creating an exaggerated fiction, ‘the World State’, where many freedoms are prohibited to keep everyone ‘happy’. Citizens of the World State are not allowed to read or to have children. Organic emotions, relationships, and art are replaced by a happiness-inducing drug. The world created is ridiculous and absurd.
Political satire is a useful tool to criticise the abuse of power in powerful groups and institutions. But satirists are not just commentators; they have the power to change the political landscape and bring about major changes through their criticisms of political matters.
Today, political satire has become the weapon of choice for journalists and everyone who cares about politics. Modern political satire has taken over our social media feeds, and it gives comical and illuminating insights into different political issues, increasing our political awareness and motivating us to effect the change we want to see.
Satire isn’t going anywhere, and that’s a good thing. Who knows what dangers and corruptions modern satirists may uncover?
1 Jacques Rancière, ‘The Politics of Literature’, SubStance, Vol. 33, No. 1, Issue 103: Contemporary Thinker Jacques Rancière (2004).
2 Johnathan Greenberg, The Cambridge Introduction to Satire (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
The term satire was first coined by the Roman Quintilian. The most prominent Roman satirist who wrote political satire was Juvenal. His satire directly ridiculed political figures like the Roman emperor Domitian and his court. Political satire, therefore, has its roots in the ancient world.
The main types of satire are Horatian, Juvenalian, and Menippean satire. Horatian satires are light-hearted satires that gently poke fun. Juvenalian satires are all about conveying a serious moral message. Menippean satire criticises mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or groups. Texts written in the genre of political satire can often be classified as Juvenalian and/or Menippean satire.
Political satire is a subgenre of the satire genre. Political satire focuses on critiquing political issues and figures. Other types of satire are social and technological satires.
One way of identifying a satire is by observing the use of ironic contrasts and exaggerations that critique certain people or attitudes. For example, you can tell that the character Napoleon in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a satirical representation of Joseph Stalin, as he is ridiculously depicted as a pig. Napoleon represents the pigs in their fight for equality with humans but ends up betraying the pigs and giving himself preferential treatment. Orwell is clearly critical of Stalin’s hypocrisy and corruption.
Political satire is important because it can be used as a tool to mock and criticise oppressive groups and institutions. Political satire also has the power to influence political discourse and lead to real change in the world.
How can we define politics?
Jacques Rancière sees politics as a way of framing the world:
What is the relationship between politics and literature?
What are the politics of the satiric mode?
What is political satire?
Political satire refers to any instance where the inconsistencies and dangers of political issues or figures are exposed, criticised and ridiculed.
This is often done through the witty use of techniques like irony, contrast and exaggeration.
What is the aim of political satire?
What are the main targets of political satire?
When can we classify political satire as Menippean satire?
What is the tone of political satire?
What is the histoy of political satire?
What is the link between satire and utopia and dystopia?
How do dystopias create a political satire?
What are the techniques used to create a political satire?
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