Teaching Comedy versus Satire in Eighteenth-Century Contexts

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    Beverly Hogue

    The success of satire today as a popular televisual and online comedic form is both a benefit and a challenge for teaching material from that other golden age of satire, the eighteenth century. Because students ordinarily encounter satire on networks like Comedy Central and sites branded as humor destinations, like The Onion and Clickhole, they enter the classroom excited to study satire (benefit), but encumbered by a general sense that satire is comedy (challenge). The latter can make it difficult to examine the invective tradition in seventeenth and eighteenth-century satire—in work by John Wilmot, Alexander Pope, and Mary Wortley Montagu, for example—because while much of what we call satire in the period is also comedy, much of it is not. The main pedagogical challenge then becomes: how do we get students to extricate the comic from the satirical when so much of what excites them about both is the expectation that they always occur together.

    To address this challenge, the essay I propose describes a new variation of an exercise I’ve done in the past in my “Satire” course, a sweeping, multimedia survey of satire from antiquity to the present. I call the exercise “reverse-engineering” because it involves close-reading primary texts and images for instances of particular satirical strategies (burlesque, hyperbole, understatement, etc.), reconstituting those strategies in students’ own creative work based on a primary text (a traditional imitation exercise), and then annotating their own work alongside the primary text in such a way that they can name the moves they’ve made and identify them once more in the primary text. The final form of this exercise is an annotated imitation of a satirical or comedic text we’ve read in class, posted on the Genius.com text annotation platform. The result, if done well, is that students become much more aware of the mechanics of satire by transforming their close readings into imitations and then annotations. My sense is that this same exercise could be used to identify and teach the mechanics of comedy, and further to identify where they overlap (or don’t) with those of satire.

    In the end, I want students not only to be able to mark and schematize various satirical and comic strategies in Cavendish, Swift, Montagu, Pope, Hogarth, and others, and thus to understand the differences where appropriate. I also want them to read each other’s imitations and annotations on Genius.com, and to reflect on which strategies were most commonly identified, whether there has been agreement about a “comic” versus “satirical” strategy, device, or deployment, and what might explain disagreements and surprises. The essay I propose for this volume will take readers through the context and details for this exercise, drawing on examples from my “Satire” course, and propose new applications for teaching comic texts and images.

    Aaron R. Hanlon
    Assistant Professor of English
    Colby College

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