History of Satire

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  • 0:01 Brief History of Satire
  • 0:42 Ancient Origins & Dark Ages
  • 1:11 The Satura/Out of the Dark
  • 2:22 Reniassance & Neoclassical
  • 2:58 The Next Generation
  • 4:00 Modern Satire/Sative…
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

In this lesson, learn about a very old and effective form of humor - satire. We'll trace the history of the often painfully funny genre of satire from before the Dark Ages all the way to the Information Age.

Brief History of Satire

Which do you think would go further in getting people to listen to what you say: making them angry, or making them laugh? Riling them up might certainly get people's attention, but humor eases tensions and makes audiences more receptive to what they're hearing. Good thing there's satire, a genre of works dedicated to social or literary criticism through the use of comedic elements.

In this lesson, we're going to explore the development of that genre - from its earliest beginnings in the ancient Mediterranean to its present place in homes across the globe. So, come along as we skim the pages of literary history for the funny bits and meet some of the scathingly humorous people who've shaped satire into what it is today!

Ancient Origins & Dark Ages

As early as the 7th century B.C.E., satirical works were already having profound effects on people. The Greek poet Archilochus reportedly shamed an entire family into suicide! He and other Greek authors like Aristophanes helped build the foundations for all of Western comedy. Much of what they produced, though - poems and plays harshly but humorously critiquing society and even certain individuals - would've been considered satire if that name had existed yet.

The Satura

The term 'satire' comes to us from the Latin satura, most likely because Latin authors are responsible for adapting the earlier Greek form of the genre into what we're more familiar with today. In fact, many satires are still categorized as Horatian or Juvenalian to this day by their resemblances to works of these Roman poets writing in the 1st centuries B.C.E. and C.E., respectively. Those resembling the works of Horace are known to be learned and witty, often using subtly sarcastic wordplay even at the author's own expense. Those who imitate Juvenal, on the other hand, are typically considered openly harsh in their mockery and ridicule, occasionally even downright dark.

Out of the Dark

After the Roman satirists, there was no real satire to speak of for about a millennium. As Europe emerged out of the Dark Ages, however, satirical elements began to reappear throughout medieval manuscripts. Chaucer's frequently funny Canterbury Tales, for example, are full of satirical sneers toward contemporary English society (late 14th century). And let's not forget Cervantes' classic Don Quixote (1605), which satirized the overly romanticized lives and literature of the previous centuries and changed views on formal chivalry forever.

Renaissance & Neoclassical Satire

Cultural criticism generally wasn't the aim of most Shakespearean comedies, but other Renaissance writers were fond of satire's ability to critique while also entertaining. Particularly poets, such as John Donne (1572-1631) and Ben Jonson (1572-1637), found the genre's comically critical features useful in various points of interest - even religion and spirituality (i.e. Donne's 'Satire III'). In just one more generation, though, authors would begin taking the genre even further, but this time by getting back to its roots.

The Next Generation

Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Molière: each one is a vital member in the next generation of satirists to blossom during the Neoclassical period running between the late 17th and 18th centuries. These giants of Neoclassicism - an artistic movement noted for its imitation of Greco-Roman (Classical) styles and genres (especially satire) - fully revived this ancient genre and captured the public's attention with their smartly humorous satires.

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