SparkNotes Blog

What Is Satire, Anyway?

A Sparkler writes:

I have a major essay to do regarding satire in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Do you think you could explain satire? I’m not sure how to tackle this (and I have been working on it for sometime!) and would appreciate some guidance. Does satire have to do with characters? plot? something else entirely? HELP!

Satire can relate to characters or plot, but mostly it’s to do with tone. Think of it as the literary version of sarcasm: the writer doesn’t mean what he says. He voices something he doesn’t believe in order to mock something or someone. For example, he might say, “We should eat babies,” but what he really means is, “The Irish people are starving, and I’m furious about it.”

So how is satire different than sarcasm? Satire has an object.

Here’s how the excellent Bedford/St. Martin’s Glossary of Literary Terms defines the device:

“[Satire is t]he literary art of ridiculing a folly or vice in order to expose or correct it. The object of satire is usually some human frailty; people, institutions, ideas, and things are all fair game for satirists. Satire evokes attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation toward its faulty subject in the hope of somehow improving it.”

You could argue that Tina Fey used satire to ridicule what she saw as the folly of Sarah Palin. And you could certainly say Fey’s satire evoked “amusement, contempt, scorn, [and] indignation” toward Palin.

Spotting satire can be tough. I have a painfully vivid memory—the kind that gives you douche chills at 4 a.m.—of flying through the reading comprehension portion of a standardized test, feeling pret-ty pleased with myself, and then realizing afterward that the poem in question (“Death of a Toad”) wasn’t earnest and overblown and sentimental, as I’d thought. It was actually satirical! It was wry and ironic, and it had gone over my head completely!

There’s no foolproof way to make sure you pick up on satire. Just keep your ears open for it. The more you read, the more easily you’ll hear it.

Sparklers, do you have any tips for spotting satire? Or any horror stories about not picking up on it?