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Jan Viktors, The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 1640

Satire and irony are often confused, even in academic literature. Irony is an essential feature of satire, although not all irony is satirical. You can have irony without satire, but cannot have satire without irony. Similarly, humour is common in satire and ridicule is essential to it, but not all humour or ridicule is satirical. Parody, exaggeration and double entendre are also common features of satire (although not necessarily essential to it). So how do we know when any of these elements – irony, exaggeration, wit, ridicule – mark a piece of literature as satirical, and when it doesn’t?

One problem with defining ‘satire’ is that it is a very old literary form which has changed over the course of time and we run the risk of becoming anachronistic if we apply definitions which work for one era or place to another time, language or setting. Ancient genres are not identical to modern ones, and while modern satire bears some similarity to classical Greek, Roman or biblical Hebrew satire, we shouldn’t push the resemblance too far and apply a modern definition to ancient literature. I was acutely aware of the risks involved with applying modern terms to biblical literature when I wrote my doctoral thesis on satire in the book of Jonah. I noted that biblical satire is similar but not identical to classical Greek and Roman satire; however, it may have evolved independently as a literary style from the mocking ridicule common to the Hebrew prophets. I suggested that we really need a term which specifically refers to the biblical literary style which is similar to Greek/Roman satire. In the absence of a specific term (for now), when I use ‘satire’ here I am referring to what we could identify as biblical-satire.

Biblical satire has several essential features. These will always be present.

  1. Ridicule. The purpose of satire is to confront and debunk ideas, whether they be political, religious or social. Satire does this by ridiculing the leaders and adherents of the movements progressing these ideas, not simply to mock them as individuals but as a vehicle to bring about reform and improvement. While it ridicules, mocks, offends and humiliates, the intention is to bring about change in those who are ridiculed.
  2. Target. A distinguishing feature of satire is that it has a target. Satire always has a target. Without a target a work may be irony, but it’s not satire. The character(s) being mocked or ridiculed may be fictional, even if based on real historical persons. If so, these characters will represent contemporary individuals or ideas. For example, a writer may produce a fictional work and ridicule an historical person from an earlier time, not to mock that person but for the purpose of targetting a contemporary whose ideas or actions are superimposed on the fictive character. These days a book or film might begin with the words “This is a work of fiction, but is based on real people and events.” Biblical writers did much the same, but without the opening disclaimer (well, I have a theory that they did this in their own way, but that’s for another time). In modern works we might detect contemporary characters ‘dressed’ as historical persons and even though a story is set, for example, in the sixteenth century we might recognise a ‘modern’ idea, attitude or individual in the historical character. Similarly, a sixteenth century writer (such as Shakespeare) may have set a story in ancient Rome but satirised contemporary sixteenth-century individuals in its ancient characters. Sometimes we will detect an anachronism which may be a deliberate way for the writer to inform the reader or listener that they are satirising something contemporary, such as putting ‘modern’ words or ideas in the mouths of characters from a previous time. Biblical writers used similar techniques.
  3. Irony. Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way as to contradict or conceal the real meaning, so that the intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. For a modern example, if someone said “X would know because they are the smartest President/Prime Minister we have ever seen” they could actually mean the opposite: “we shouldn’t listen to a word they say because they are the dumbest President … etc”. The context will usually determine what the writer/speaker intended, and many (perhaps most) in the audience will recognise the irony, but because of the inevitable ambiguity there will always be some people who take the words literally, not recognising the irony, and this in fact adds to the humorous nature of satire.