Pseudonymity and Satire, Then and Now
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince & Other Tales (1888)
Satire is a genre fraught with paradox. When satirical invective follows the rancorous Juvenalian model or adopts Diogenes’s Cynic pessimism, as Elizabethan satire did with fervor, it is guilty of the same vices—especially pride—which it attacks. In the case of particularly biting satires, censure invited regimes of censorship. This was especially true when English satire was taking generic shape in the early modern period.
The glaring irony of moralizing burlesque, combined with the threat of the censorious Elizabethan government, demanded that satirists take great pains to distance themselves from their often-pseudonymous personas. This authorial duality shaped a genre of “representational instability,” to borrow from Annabel Patterson’s evaluation of Elizabethan censorship. Here, I mean the unstable representation of a living author’s true opinions, for which he can be held publicly responsible. Given the distinction between the author of a satire and their satirical persona, these early modern writers simultaneously dodged biographical attribution while making a claim to plain speaking and moral rectitude. As satirical personae became more complex and the genre developed, pseudonymity became an art form in itself. Then, as now, satire was replete with masks.
Martin Marprelate: A Dangerous Pseudonym
The medieval Piers Plowman presented the rural Plowman as a reliable dispenser of commentary given his “playne” disposition. Following in that tradition, early modern satirical pseudonyms reflected their objectives: to be shrewd voices of reason attacking widespread vice. Pamphleteer Joseph Swetnam’s nom de plume Thomas Telltruth, “author” of The Arraignment of Women (1615), is an obvious example. Telltruth became an enduring figure to whom polemical pamphlets were attributed during the English Civil War. Given the vitriolic humour and irreverence of these pseudonymous personae, this “plain-speaking” characterization of Swetman and his ilk offered a deep irony in the tension between speaking truthfully and speaking freely, without the fetters of nominal attribution.
In the wake of the English Reformation, the explosion of print culture invited ecclesiastical polemicists to disseminate biting pamphlets in the public forum. Authors of this anticlerical satire, having prompted the ire of the Church of England, needed pseudonymous shields against the sniffing hounds of Elizabeth’s Bishops. The Marprelate controversy is the paradigmatic example of this danger. The Marprelate tracts were a series of seven anticlerical pamphlets which, printed in late 1588, lampooned individual Anglican bishops and charged the Elizabethan Church with popery, among other crimes. They were written under the pseudonym “Martin Mar-prelate” (mar = damage; prelate = well, prelate).
The ad hominem attacks of the Marprelate tracts were striking, particularly in Martin’s initial response to John Bridges’s A Defence of the Government Established in the Church of Englande for Ecclesiasticall Matters (1587), and prompted a scrupulous government search for the authors responsible. In the Epitome (1588), Martin, considered the persona of multiple Puritan writers including John Penry (executed in 1593) and Job Throckmorton, refers to himself in the third person and laughs at the notion that the author could be identified and found:
Why, his meaning in writing unto you was not that you should take the pains to seek for him. Did you think that he did not know where he was himself? Or did you think him to have been clean lost, that you sought so diligently for him? (Epitome, sig. A2)
Here, pseudonymity provided a protective shield that allowed the Martinists to brazenly mock the very officials responsible for “calling four bishops together, John Canterbury, John London, Thomas Winchester, William of Lincoln” in search of the troublesome Puritans (Epitome, sig. A2). Martin famously played with his own name, referring to himself in the front of the Epitome as “Martin Marprelate gentleman/ primate/ and Metropolitane of al the Martins in England.” Mocking the very nature of authorial attribution by emblazoning this quip under the title of the Tract, Martin pre-emptively spoofed his name, a technique which his opponents co-opted. Mar-Phoreus, for instance, was the pseudonymous author of the anti-Martinist polemic Martins Months Mind (1589).
However, Martin’s reference to his anonymity, along with the implication that he did not exist outside of the text, signals something further. Martin’s pseudonymous character, beyond being a cover to veil the author’s identity, curates the satirical personae to be more than just a “plain-speaking” reviewer of social vice. Rather, Martin’s taunting words show that the typical satirist was not above engaging in prideful and vengeful diatribe. As Alvin Kernan suggests, “we may begin to wonder if the author is not mocking his own creation while using him to attack others,” rather like Erasmus’s use of Folly. The Marprelate controversy made clear that “true” speech is not the same as “free” or unfettered speech, though the satirical speaker wants to conflate the two.
Censoring Satire: The Bishops’ Order
In spite of the inherent incongruity between the moralizing and defamatory functions of satire, Elizabeth’s Privy Council saw satire as a grave political threat. The anxiety of Her Majesty’s councillors culminated in the remarkable event that was the Bishop’s Order of 1599.
The Bishop’s Order was a strikingly panoramic instance of press censorship by Elizabeth’s government. It occurred at the convergence of various political troubles, the succession crisis being at the fore. Satire, a genre in which every 1590s leading man of letters dabbled, was the Bishops’ principle target. On June 1, 1599, Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London, and John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, together issued a sweeping order for the censorship of all satires and epigrams, as well as dramatic works and histories, if published without the approval of the Privy Council.
The ban, prohibiting the printing and dissemination of these works, ordered that copies of various exemplary titles be brought to London and ceremonially burnt. The affinity of the censored satires for hallmarks of Cynicism is evident from many of the titles alone: take Thomas Middleton’s Microcynicon: Six Snarling Satyres (1597-1598), full of the doggish language pertaining to the Cynic school. (“Cynic” derives from the Greek κυνικός or “dog-like”, reflecting Diogenes’s self-association with the canine proclivities to bark at the truth and to bite their neighbour.)
The inclusion of prose histories—like that of John Hayward, who hailed the Earl of Essex as a “great man . . . both in the present judgment and in the expectation of a future time”—indicates that the Order was more a political maneuver than a religious act targeting obscenity. However, the Order was mostly concerned with satire, which was becoming a vehicle for libellous attacks against individuals and religious mores. That English satire of the sixteenth century was steeped in a tradition of pseudonymity further heightened the threat. These pseudonyms did not merely operate as shrouds to keep authors anonymous; the chief works listed on the Bishop’s Order were attributed to authors whose identities were well known. Hall, Marlowe, Nashe, and Harvey were all named outright. Rather, pseudonyms doubly functioned as protective covers of authorial identities as well as familiar hallmarks of the viewpoints being promoted by the works. For instance, Pasquil, the pseudonym of several anti-Martinist satires, referred to Pasquin, the first talking statue of Rome on whose base writers traditionally attached anonymous satires and epigrams.
The Bishops were responding to the anonymized topos of satirical authorship. Under their masks, satirists freely eschewed accountability for being libellous, obscene, even seditious. These men of letters were emboldened to test the limits of popular satire’s Cynic flavour. Melancholic and rancorous, pseudonymous personae were more like theatrical “characters” than plain-speaking authors—as John Marston’s persona, “Kinsayder,” reveals.
The Satirist and the Malcontent: Characters Both
John Marston’s woefully neglected satires are full of antinomies. Donning the pseudonym Kinsayder, meaning one who castrates dogs—also a play on his own name, “mar” and “stone”—Marston established his persona as the embodiment of doggish, snarling rage. However, while Marston often spews Cynic diatribes, he elsewhere critiques Cynic philosophy itself. He signals the obscure nature of his work by attaching the Latin motto Fronti nulla fides, meaning “no reliance can be placed upon appearances” and deriving from Juvenal’s second satire, to Satyre I of his main work, The Scourge of Villainie (1598). Marston goes on to launch an attack against the superficialities of men who “Hath stinking lunges, although a simp’ring grace / A muddy inside, though a surphul’d face” (I.57-58). Satyre I thus centers on the discrepancy between appearances and “the inward disposition” (I.12).
Kinsayder is problematic precisely because the Scourge is rife with such discrepancy. C. S. Lewis, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, finds it “embarrassing” when Marston “professes to be vicariously grieved . . . and exclaims ‘O Split my heart lest it do breake with rage.’’’ Lewis gives this assessment since, elsewhere, Marston’s Kinsayder laughs at the vanity he observes: “O I am great with mirth, some midwifery, / Or I shall breake my sides at vanitie” (1.11-12). Veiled in contradiction, Kinsayder sets himself up as a moral arbiter whose objective is to be “tearing the veil from damn’d Impiety” (“Proemium,” 1: 18).
In “To Detraction,” prefacing Book I, he seems to embrace the Cynic rejection of conventional desire for fame and “Opinion” by preemptively dismissing critics of his work. In doing so, he displays an excess of the ultimate vice: pride. Kinsayder makes the puffed-up declaration that all “Detraction” to be “Envie’s abhorred child” and claims that Genius “attendeth on, / And guides my powers intellectuall.” In this preliminary tantrum, Marston practically admits that he is writing for public approval whilst simultaneously despising the opinion of the masses—on which literary success depends! This hypocrisy highlights how Marston’s satirist operates as the object, as well as the dispenser, of satire.
In Satyre VII, “A Cynicke Satyre,” Marston further distances himself from Kinsayder’s Cynic disposition by presenting Diogenes in a flawed light: his philosophy is short-sighted, though his anger righteous. Satire VII opens with Linceus charging Diogenes with the following question: “Thou Cynick dogge, see’st not streets do swarme / With troupes of men?” (VII: 3-4). Diogenes replies: “No, no, for Circes charme / Hath turn’d them all to swine . . . I dare sweare, the soules of swine / Doe live in men” (VII: 4-8). Diogenes’s disappointment in the impiety and sensuality of men is such that he neglects to recognise their humanity at all; instead, he concludes in line 15 that these “are no men, but Apparitions.”
For Marston’s Christian readership, this hopelessness extends beyond the mere pessimism of the Cynic-imitator: it clashes with the Christian principle that the immortal human soul is distinct from the animal. Diogenes concludes that vice precludes the possibility that fallible humans could have proceeded from an infallible Creator. With this error, Marston distances himself from Cynic fatalism, lest the reader presume his debt to the Cynics meant that he fully endorsed their pre-Christian worldview.
Compounding the self-reflexivity of the satire, Marston gives Kinsayder the characteristics of a theatrical “malcontent”: a popular Jacobean caricature of the melancholic man of letters whose blood needs letting to restore the balance of his humors. Herein lies a crucial aspect of the satirical persona: humoral melancholy. The profession of melancholy as an excuse for pessimism was a notable trend in the 1590s: John Donne, Thomas Nashe, and Marston were all responsible. In the Scourge, Kinsayder professes to let sinners of their “infectious blood” with an incisive razor in Satire V. To assist this medical satiric project, Kinsayder dramatically invokes Melancholy as a Muse in Book I:
Thou nursing Mother of faire wisedoms lore,
Ingenuous Melancholy, I implore
Thy grave assistance, take thy gloomie seate,
Inthrone thee in my blood. . .
(“Proemium,” I: 10-14)
By inviting a state of despondence, rather than merely suffering a precursory affliction, Marston performs a kind of self-sacrifice on the altar of scorn. Framing Kinsayder’s melancholic state as instrumental to the satire, Marston points toward pastiche being a corrective—and thus redemptive—enterprise, at once heightening his authority and diminishing accountability for the extreme, paradoxical invective of his mask.
Satire saw a shift onto the stage after the Bishop’s Order, with a remarkable increase in the production rate of such comedies after 1599. The “malcontent” likewise rose to prominence. Jacobean malcontents include Shakespeare’s Jacques, Timon, and Hamlet, Webster’s Bosola, and Middleton’s Vindice. As its title suggests, Marston’s stage play, The Malcontent (1603), is primarily concerned with this dramatic type: the deposed Duke Altofronto of Genoa dons a melancholic garb as Malevole, a typical caricatured critic of widespread vice. The literal disguise of the malcontent is markedly reminiscent of the more nebulous narrative “mask” of Marston’s verse satires.
Elizabethan and Jacobean satire was increasingly concerned with self-reflexivity: mouthpieces like Marston’s Malevole or Ben Jonson’s Macilente in Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) were themselves objects of ridicule in comic satires. In the form of the malcontent, satirists could theatrically typify and give shape to their own personas. The author could be the critic of his own voice of mockery.
Parody in the Modern Age
Early modern authors of more seditious animadversions needed protection; this came in the form of the pseudonymous mask. However, in the cases when the author was well-known—like most of the authors explicitly named on the Bishops’ Ban—pseudonyms were still useful as a means of cultivating a distinct, bombastic persona and disowning the more outrageous claims in the satires. Satirists heightened this self-reflexivity by mocking their own personas in the form of the staged malcontent, layering mask upon mask.
What of modern satire? Its masks seem more subtle. Some of the most triumphant satirical prose in the twentieth century occurs in various episodes of Ulysses (1920). In them, Joyce turns his pen onto himself: the figure of Stephen Dedalus represents in no small part the young Joyce. Dedalus is a great example of the ambiguous relation between author and satirical persona. Further, he betrays the same vice he attacks. As Dedalus rails against various epistemic authorities—especially the Church in Ireland—he speaks with as much myopia and folly as Joyce can inflict onto the voice of a character. Dedalus cements himself as the typified paradoxical satirist while wandering along Sandymount Strand in deep thought, regularly invoking the early modern malcontent and analogue to his own solipsistic condition: Hamlet.
Famously, Ulysses attracted its fair share of censorious outrage, given its obscene depictions of sex acts and Dedalus’s penchant for entertaining heresy and trampling on received moral wisdom. Although, Dedalus is not a strict pseudonym for Joyce, he enshrines the antinomies of the satirical genre and the confusion which such biographical ambiguities can cause in readers, critics, and arbiters of public moral norms. This is clear to see in the vexed critical debate over what extent Dedalus really is a surrogate for Joyce.
And what of satire right now? Twenty-first century giants of satire like Andy Borowitz, dubbed the “literary Jon Stewart,” need not adopt a pseudonymous mask to peddle their often funny, but never actually counter-cultural, writing. Instead, Twitter embodies the fractiousness of the satirical tradition, both in terms of pseudonymity and censorship. One often encounters anonymous accounts with the disclaimer “parody/satire” in the bio. They range from light-hearted political parodies to abusive nuisances, nuisances which can conveniently be banished with the “block” button. In the light of such abuses, calls have been made to ban pseudonyms online.
A banal example of this opposition to online anonymity, in the form of lukewarm political activism, is crime author Don Winslow’s recent contemplation of a utopian Online, free of noms de plume under which one can speak freely without being held accountable. Though it is a fair observation to make that Twitter is full of ungenerous, cynical, and quick-tempered exchanges among faceless entities, Winslow should also be sensitive to the attraction of a pseudonymous mask, having himself published under a pen name.
More disturbingly, following the brutal murder of British Member of Parliament David Amess, members of the British government, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, responded to the attack—ruled a terrorist incident by police—with facile platitudes about removing the right to anonymity on social media. This would, Patel alleged, diminish online harassment and abuse faced by MPs. She seems unaware that this deflective overcorrection would be just as ineffective as that of the Bishop’s Order, and equally as impossible to implement. It is also a dishonest gesture to conflate the threat of radicalization with anonymity on mainstream websites like Twitter, where pseudonymity mostly allows small accounts to crack jokes or launch complaints without worrying that their employers will find out.
The commentative dynamism and spirit of unfettered speech by online “fake accounts,” as Winslow calls them—accounts which seem abundantly less fake than those attached to their owner’s LinkedIn profiles—are recurrently targeted by establishment media stakeholders and government officials. These calls are motivated by what is once more akin to “representational instability”: the identities and—beyond that—the sincerity of online accounts cannot be easily ascertained under the status quo. The more expedient route taken by Twitter to address the problem of accountability is the uncomplicated censorship of banning individual accounts. For example, Andrew Doyle’s pseudonymous parody account “Titania McGrath” was banned on and off in 2020. Surprising, given that I found most of Titania’s tweets to be rather unremarkable—though depressingly on-the-nose—imitations of woke platitudes. Before long, Titania was sounding like a broken record, and Twitter seemed to be equally as sensitive as the Elizabethan Privy Council.
The formal properties of tweets have also been criticized. The brevity of the 280-character tweet certainly recalls the early modern epigram, a laconic form which was perfect for lampoonery. Trump’s short and effective “Pocahontas” tweets—or, even more so, the earlier “Fauxcahontas” published earlier—directed at Elizabeth Warren are not far-off from the kind of jibes which literary men like Marston and his rivals, Ben Jonson and Joseph Hall, would paste to the back of one another’s printed works. Twitter certainly fosters the epigrammatic art of biting one’s neighbour, in the spirit of Diogenes, but what has waned in satire over the ages is sustained self-parody like that of Marston and Joyce. Without much pressure from a censorious overlord to disown one’s mean-spirited satirical censures—one can easily look like a hypocrite unless they be without sin—satirists can rest on their laurels and poke fun at the lowest hanging fruit. I’d like to see a return of animadversions between jousting literary figures in difficult, self-aware reams of satirical verse.
The silver lining is that censorship is the driving force behind satire’s urgency. As long as technological giants remain cowed by politically censorious bullies, those writing satire should be ever emboldened by the opportunity to be the tortured malcontent with a well-earned pseudonym. The satirist, whose task it is to present vice in as ugly and caricatured a light as he can while retaining credibility, must continue to speak freely—not always the same as speaking truthfully—with whatever mask suits him. The satirist should also remember to poke fun at himself. His real virtue is that satire reveals not only the folly outside, but the folly within.
Davenport, Arnold. “The Quarrel of the Satirists” in Modern Language Review 37 (1942): 123-130
Griffin, Dustin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press 1994)
Griffin, Robert. The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003)
Kernan, Alvin. The Cankered Muse (New Haven: Yale University Press 1959)
Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1973)
Marston, John. The Poems of John Marston ed. Arnold Davenport (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1961)
--- The Plays of John Marston ed. Harvey Wood. 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1934-1939)
Patterson, Annabel. “Back by Popular Demand: The Two Versions of ‘Henry V’” in Renaissance Drama 19 (University of Chicago Press 1988): 29-62
Featured image: De Geuzen (The Cripples) painting (1568) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikimedia Commons.