Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea
Posted by Gabrielle Zitka
Satire is an art of walking a thin line between ridicule, humor, irony, and social commentary. It can take the form of literature, songs, television shows, commercial products, performance and visual art, and even memes. Satire is born out of resentment for the status quo. Artists use satire after becoming frustrated over social issues, events, or other people. It employs the elements of subtle irony, play on words, and comedy to bring the audience’s attention to an artist’s message. Patrick Welch writes that, “Satire is fiction that recognizably departs from literal truth in order to take a position on a specific reality “and attempt[s] to alter the public’s perspective (Welch 476).
The history of satire as entertainment traces its origins back as far as the ancient Greeks. This is even before the use of the word satire. However, 17th and 18th century Britain stands as one of the most familiar time periods in which satire flourishes. This is likely due to the Restoration period’s emphasis on the use of wit. This era is full of satirists such as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, and Ben Johnson. These authors satirize social issues occurring during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, because of this separation of hundreds of years, much of the satire is lost on contemporary audiences.
This is how satire works. It is most effective in the time period in which it is written, due to the subjects the works reference. However, despite this gap, satire is still capable of resonating with audiences throughout the generations (Test 2-5). The social injustices expressed in satire touch on common human experience across history. Contemporary satire draws attention to the same concepts brought up by satirists from hundreds of years ago. John Dryden writes on political issues in his essays. Jonathan Swift brings up issues of social class and the mistreatment of types of citizens. Alexander Pope pokes fun the way elite society prioritizes. Similarly, Matt Groening’s contemporary series, The Simpsons, satirizes the ideal American family in order to highlight certain cultural issues (Henry).
For example, Alexander Pope uses his work, The Rape of The Lock to make a commentary on the misplaced priorities of the wealthy. He writes about a minor incident of a stolen lock of an aristocratic lady, in the style of an epic, complete with mock-heroes preparing for battle.
And now, unveil’d, the Toilet stands display’d,
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
First, rob’d in White, the Nymph intent adores
With Head uncover’d, the Cosmetic Pow’rs.
A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears; [l.121-6]
Here, Belinda’s ordinary act of preparing for the day is compared to a soldier readying for war. Pope juxtaposes the classic epic style with his use of grand language. He models his work after poems such as Paradise Lost and the Iliad to draw attention to the inappropriate moral priorities of the wealthy (Cody).
Similarly, The Simpsons has both characters and episodes that highlight the shrewdness of the wealthy. In the series, there is a character named, Mr. Burns who owns the nuclear power plant that employs most of the town. He is notorious for having no sympathy for his employees and using savage tactics to keep a profit. In the eighth season episode titled, “ The Old Man and The Lisa,” Mr. Burns is asked to give business advice to the Junior Achievers Club. Mr. Burns says, “I’ll keep it short and sweet. Family, religion, friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business. When opportunity knocks, you don’t want to be driving to a maternity hospital or sitting in some phony-baloney church. Or synagogue. This exaggerated portrayal of the wealthy is Groening’s own way of emphasizing the absurd moral values of the affluent.
So, while satire remains most effective in its own time period, it is still able to resonate with audiences of different generations. The references of older works of satire may fall on deaf ears, but the social injustices that satire highlights are common across the human experience.