The Origins of 'Camp': Shakespeare, Byron, Dickinson, Wilde and O'Hara

Course Dates: 23/09/20 - 09/12/20
Time: 12:30 - 14:30
Location: Online

Essentially 'camp' is performance enjoyed because of its conscious artificiality. The word is modern, but 'camp' has existed for centuries and, using Susan Sontag's Notes on 'Camp' (1964), we will explore some of its earlier forms. It is often associated with a gay sensibility, but we will show this isn't necessarily so – ‘camp' can arise as the subversive viewpoint of any marginalised people.

This course will be delivered online. See the ‘What is the course about?’ section in course details for more information.


What is the course about?

We will look at several writers who have used ‘camp’ in distinctive ways. The origins of ‘camp’ are usually traced to masques and operas of the 16th/17th centuries, but these were available only to tiny numbers of rich people. We will therefore begin with how Shakespeare introduces elements of 'camp' into public theatre. We will look at the power of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the significance of the battle between Titania and Oberon over the little Indian boy and at the effect of the triple plot. In Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear there are moments when language is flamboyantly in excess of what is needed for dramatic purposes and we will explore these episodes of Shakespearean 'camp'.

We will also explore Shakespeare's resentment of his low social status as an actor, trying to raise this with erotic narrative poems dedicated to the Earl of Southampton and Sonnets addressed to Mr W H (his only authorised publications in his lifetime). We will look at the feelings expressed or played with in these poems; and how the sonnets are echoed in some of his plays, e.g. Falstaff's relationship with Hal and the repeated presentation of warfare in erotic language.

Course tutor: Laurie Smith.

This is a live online course. You will need:
- Internet connection. The classes work best with Chrome.
- A computer with microphone and camera is best (e.g. a PC/laptop/iMac/MacBook), or a tablet/iPad/smart phone/iPhone if you don't have a computer.
- Earphones/headphones/speakers.
We will contact you with joining instructions before your course starts.

What will we cover?

After Shakespeare we will look at Lord Byron as the first literary celebrity in the modern sense, famous for his life-style as much as his poems which sold in unprecedented numbers. We will consider how far some personal aspects of his life - his sexual profligacy, bisexuality, bulimia, political support for the Luddites and for the Greeks against the Turks - informed his sardonic, self-mocking poetry and gave rise to the Byronic hero, most famously Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.

By contrast we will look at how performance is a helpful way of reading Emily Dickinson's poems. In each case she adopts a role - sometimes closely, sometimes distantly related to her actual life as an unmarried woman in a small American town - and acts it out in verse. She plays with and against what is expected of her, adopting numerous roles and using dashes and lack of conventional punctuation to free her way of speaking her poems. Finally we will look at two more recent exponents of 'camp': Oscar Wilde who sought to make wit and artificiality into a confrontational lifestyle; and Frank O'Hara for whom 'camp' became part of normality in 1950/60s New York and led his idea of Personism and the extraordinary fluency of his poems.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

• Understand the origins of ‘camp’ and how and why it appears in the work of some major writers.
• Appreciate how and why the concept of ‘camp’ has become important.
• Enjoy reading and discussing some great works from an unusual perspective.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

You should be interested in exploring how the idea of ‘camp’ is expressed in the work of several quite different writers, reading and discussing representative selections of their work. No particular knowledge or skills are needed.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

The sessions are run in a seminar style with all students included in discussions led by the tutor and some small-group discussions with feedback. You will receive copies of the materials the previous week so you can read them and be ready to discuss them.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

No. Copies of all the materials will be provided.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Please see our range of Literature courses under History, Culture and Writing on the website at

Tutor Biographies
Laurie Smith

Laurie Smith has taught poetry writing and literature courses at the City Lit for some years, focussing on modernism and writers' radicalism. He researches and lectures at King's College London, helped to found Magma poetry magazine which he sometimes edits and has been a Trustee of the Poetry Society.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.

Book your place

Course Code: HLT125

Wed, day, 23 Sep - 09 Dec '20

Duration: 12 sessions (over 12 weeks)

Full fee: £229.00
Senior fee: £183.00
Concession: £140.00

Or call to enrol: 020 7831 7831

Any questions?
or call 020 7492 2652

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