When a writer, or sometimes an artist, makes fun of something in a way that’s meant to make the audience laugh, they are “lampooning” that thing. A lampoon is clearer and more direct than other forms of satire which rely on an understanding of social customs. Additionally, satire is somewhat more serious in its criticism and the real issues it draws to the reader’s attention.
Definition of Lampoon
A lampoon is an attack on someone, something, an institution, or an activity. Writers and artists can engage in lampooning. It is usually done simply to criticize its subject. It more specific than satire is, which seeks to address broader social behaviors and vices. For example, it’s easy to draw a difference between satire about politics and the specific lampooning of a political figure. A writer might create a satire about American politics but spend extra time lampooning one specific figure from one political party. Sometimes, these attacks are unjust. It is certainly going to depend on the reader to determine whether or not they’re deserved and/or if they’re funny.
Examples of Lampoons in Literature
The Works of John Dryden
Dryden is one of the most famous historical examples of writers who excelled at writing lampoons. Today, Dryden is regarded as one of the most important writers of satire in the English language. He is best known for the work ‘Mac Flecknoe,’ in which he criticized the work of Thomas Shadwell, a well-known playwright. He targeted the man’s critical abilities so precisely and clearly that his reputation has never fully recovered. He depicted him as a dunce due to his opinion of another writer, Ben Johnson. This very specific attack led to a larger reconsideration of Shadwell’s abilities. The following lines can be found at the beginning of the poem:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity.
Dryden does not beat around the bush when it comes to his opinion of Shadwell. He uses the wit in these lines to emphasize what he explains is Shadwell’s “dullness.” Other works that demonstrate Dryden’s still as a lampooner and satirist are ‘The Medall’ and ‘Absalom and Achitophel.’ The latter is regarded as the most important political satire in the English language. It is skillfully written and explores Dryden’s contemporary political events.
Explore John Dryden’s poetry.
The Frogs by Aristophanes
The Frogs by Aristophanes is a Greek satire that was written and performed around 400 BC that lampoons Euripides. It was a comedy that tells the story of Dionysus, who expresses despair at the state of Athenian tragedy writers, known as tragedians, and therefore travels to Hades to bring back Euripides, who had recently died. Eventually, Dionysus is convinced that he made the wrong decision and returns to Earth with Aeschylus instead.
“An Essay on Woman” by John Wilkes
In this controversial essay, Wilkes parodies Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” to lampoon Fanny Murray, a courtesan. She’s remembered today as the subject of this particular essay, her leading role in society, and for the fact that she rose through the ranks from poverty to wealth and fame. The essay eventually led to Wilkes’s downfall. The lampoon and parody was extremely obscene and even pornographic in parts. The essay was read aloud in 1763 at the start of a parliamentary session and was voted as libel and a breach of privilege. He was expelled from the Commons and found guilty of publishing a libel.
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
“A Modest Proposal” is an incredibly famous example of satire that also acts as a lampoon in which the writer targets the wealthiest segments of British society. These people acknowledge the issue of starvation and overpopulation in Ireland but do nothing about it. In order to solve their problem (that they’re doing nothing themselves to resolve), Swift suggests that they purchase the Irish children and eat them.
Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In what many consider his masterpiece, Twain creates an interesting example of a lampoon in his depiction of society. Consider the following lines:
Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t … Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.
Discover Mark Twain’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Create Lampoons?
Writers use this literary device when they want to point out and criticize something specific. This might be someone’s vice or quirk, an institution’s absurd rules, an activity’s strange participants, an object’s irrelevancy, or many other things. These criticisms are usually funny and meant to make the audience laugh, or at the very least, think more deeply about a topic. A lampoon can appear in literature as a joke, paragraph, or an entire short story or novel. It might also take the form of a television sketch, poem, letter, or drawing. It is most common and most easily recognized in television and film.
Related Literary Terms
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Hyperbole: an intentionally exaggerated description meant to make a specific impact on a reader.
- Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.