Tag Archives: King Lear

My English teachers 4: Sam Goldberg

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life and in the Big Archive. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career. The next few years were to see the English Department split in two, and by decade’s end Goldberg had gone. When I returned to Sydney University for a temporary secondment as a lecturer in 1977 he was just a memory, albeit with a few acolytes still hanging on, and a cricket team named in his honour, or in honour of his mentor the Downing College Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis.

In a 1999 article in The Australian Book Review Terry Collits recalls:

…migrating Leavisism first touched these shores at Perth, with the professorial appointment of a veritable ‘Scrutineer’, Allan Edwards. The word was brought across to Melbourne by Jock Tomlinson in the early 1950s, and Leavis was more or less the sign under which the brilliant younger brigade of the department (Goldberg himself, Maggie Tomlinson, David Moody and Vincent Buckley) set about revamping its pedagogy. The purists, the ‘true believers’, of the group were Goldberg and the Tomlinsons, and it was they who carried most influence with the honours students. Buckley was a special case: he himself had written a book on Leavis, but would not call himself a Leavisite; his personal influence, in Irish and Catholic circles, extended well beyond the English department and has been well recorded.

Goldberg was the rising star in academic English in Australia at this time. This was his hey-day as a teacher, attested by Germaine Greer and others who gravitated to English Honours at Melbourne in the ’50s. From the start his teaching took in wider agendas: he set up a ‘Lit. Club’ for staff and students to discuss books and issues and it was from papers presented in that forum that a serious critical journal, The Melbourne Critical Review, was established. Despite the worrying repetition of the name of Leavis, early numbers of the journal reflected the liberal pluralism of the department of Ian Maxwell, and included critics as diverse as A.D. Hope, Leonie Kramer, Andrew Taylor and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Undergraduates, many like Wilbur Sanders and Ian Donaldson to go on to distinguished academic careers abroad, found space for their first publications in the Review, an astonishing fact in an otherwise strictly hierarchised Australian academy. Further, as the recalling of these names might indicate, English at Melbourne was by no means cut off from the literary community of the 1950s: the department housed, as it has right up to the present time, many a ‘creative writer’.

All this might suggest that one of the collective errors of judgment in those halcyon days was the abortive attempt to translate Australian Leavisism to Sydney, where for the Sydney natives it had all the appearance of a violent act of colonial appropriation. In Melbourne, Goldberg and the other Leavisites could live in a state of civilised friction within the greater department while achieving a high degree of hegemonic authority; in Sydney, they were greeted with a mistrust that quickly degenerated into collective paranoia. Besides, the overlooking of Wilkes for the Challis Professorship (the real Chair) while simultaneously appointing him to the newly-established Chair of Australian Literature laid the foundations for the struggle to the death that ensued.

When Gerry Wilkes, with the support of the Administration at Sydney, set up a rival course to the one Goldberg thought he had sole authority over, the move to split the department was defended in the name of pluralism, a corrective to the proselytising rigidities of Goldbergism. Once Goldberg had returned to Melbourne, less than four years after his arrival at Sydney, this pluralism was abandoned and a new/old monolithic course set in place. All traces of Goldberg’s values were expunged. Thus Andrew Riemer could finally settle down to enjoy his rightful inheritance, complete with a room in the old sandstone building that is the impressive quadrangle of Sydney University. Academic English at Sydney, to adopt Terry Eagleton’s favourite description of Oxford, would revert to a state of ‘pre-Leavisian’ innocence. But only as long as the world allowed, and the inhabitants of Sydney English could go on forgetting…

We, the class of 1964, were the meat in the sandwich. None of us attained First Class Honours, but a year or two later the first ranks of the Goldberg-educated were showered with them.

That could be interpreted as my being resentful, but the fact is Goldberg was a brilliant, if at times ruthless, tutor. My love of seventeenth century English poetry owes much to him. Then too there are memories of tutorial groups so stimulating that they would go hours over time! All this apart from my being the one male in a class of fourteen, with happy memories of my “harem” and I lying under trees in Centennial Park reading seventeenth century poetry to one another. (I have heard about Joy Phillips since, so if you read this, Joy, know that I remember, and also that you later taught my cousin, now a teacher.)

Michael Wilding, a prominent writer of short stories and former Reader in English at Sydney, tells a fascinating tale in Southerly (March 1999):

“So what do you want to teach?” Sam asked me.
I had no idea. I had just taken finals. It was all literature, all accessible, at least up to 1870 when the Oxford syllabus had ended.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I tried to be more specific. “Anything except Milton,” I said.
Milton had been a compulsory author in my first year, and compulsion rarely endears.
“That’s it then,” he said. “Milton it is. I don’t want some Miltonist teaching Milton.”
Perhaps I had expected to gain merit from my proposed exclusion. Milton was a particular bugbear of the Leavisites. Perhaps I had expected a complicit smirk at my correct taste, my gesture of avoidance. I had certainly not expected this new compulsion. Compulsion it was. I demurred. But I got nowhere…

Apart from Milton I chose, or agreed to the suggestion of, the novel course. That was why I had come to Sydney, after all, the path of the novelist. It would be sensible to learn something of the novelist’s art. And whereas the Oxford syllabus had ended in 1870, this course included the moderns: Conrad, James, Lawrence, Faulkner: what passed for the modern at that time, books too modern for Oxford, even if written some fifty years earlier. I was to teach it together with a lecturer Sam had inherited when he had taken over the department. Most of the lecturers he had inherited. He was trying to stock the place with new talent, Leavisites he had taught or taught with in Melbourne, or recent graduates with a seal of approval from Cambridge or, at a pinch, Oxford. But Bill Maidment, with whom I was to teach, was one of the old guard, the unreconstructed.
“I want you to keep an eye on Bill,” Sam said. “I’m not sure about him.”
I was twenty-one. I had never taught before. I felt uneasy about this instruction…

Bill Maidment will be #5 in my English teachers.


S L Goldberg’s last book (PDF)

Goldberg on King Lear (PDF)

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Posted by on October 31, 2007 in Australian, English studies, literary theory, my English teachers, reminiscences, Teachers Who Change Lives


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In Search of Shakespeare

Last August I borrowed on DVD In Search of Shakespeare, made two years ago by PBS and BBC. The PBS site linked there has summaries of each episode, but much more: ideas for teachers, relevant links, documents… Each play discussed in the DVD is illustrated by performances of extracts by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, often in authentic settings. This is a great way to get to understand the conditions Shakespeare wrote for. Another great strength of the series is its very careful contextualising of Shakespeare’s work. Macbeth and King Lear, for example, are seen in the light of the early years of James I, particularly the Gunpowder Plot, a “17th century 9/11”. About Othello, with scrupulous documentation, “we meet black Elizabethans, at a time the government was discussing their repatriation. And in Leicester Guildhall (where Shakespeare’s company actually played) we see him stage a play where the hero is a black man: Othello.” This is a fascinating series, especially valuable for historicist reading of the plays. A few of the findings are controversial, such as that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, very similar in that time to being a secret admirer of Osama Bin Laden today! However, the conclusions are always presented with due care, and none of them is negligible. I’d say it is a MUST SEE!

I am a sceptic when it comes to theories that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. So is In Search of Shakespeare. However, there is a fascinating new book in this rather old genre: The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare (2005) by Brenda James and William D Rubinstein. According to this latest theory, Sir Henry Neville (c. 1562 – July 10, 1615) wrote the plays. Great if you like history and/or detective stories… It MAY be true, but in a way doesn’t really matter. Or does it? After all, the plays remain pretty much as they were.

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Posted by on January 9, 2007 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare, student help, works/authors


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Boxing Day not just about Shane Warne…

…even if Boxing Day 2006 is.

Reading The Weekend Australian I notice that today is the 400th anniversary of King Lear, or of its first production.

IT seems an odd Boxing Day celebration: King Lear performed at the court of James I, its devastating tragedy illuminated by candlelight that festive but wan winter in 1606. Then again, what could be more exhilarating than to see a great Lear — as Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage no doubt was — essaying this mountain of a role in a play where the pity and the terror (Lear over the dead body of Cordelia, the blinding of Gloucester) are all but overwhelming…

There were various contemporary resonances that might have been in the air for that Christmas audience 400 years ago. There had been a famous court case in which two daughters had sought to have their father declared incompetent on the grounds of insanity and, according to the English literary critic William Empson, all Europe had gasped in apprehension when Charles V of Spain had abdicated so he could prepare to meet his maker by retiring to a monastery…

Very few actors come within cooee of Lear but the attempt is part of the purpose of being alive for an actor of the first rank. It is an almost purely visceral role, this stubborn ox of a man who has no clue about his own heart and then has it shattered into a hundred thousand flaws.

George Orwell may have been right to say that Lear remains blind, that he never understands a thing. What we understand watching him, however, is the mystery of human pain that is embodied before our eyes.

We are confronted with the essence of the sorrow of the world in the starkest and most blazing poetry ever written.

The eyes of the courtiers would have been dazzled with tears that night in the long-ago court of the Stuart king, but they would have emerged into the night as high as kites.

They would have seen, by nightfall, a king blind, derided and destroyed. They would have seen the Brando of their time burn up the stage of the most glamorous theatre around in a royal command performance. They would also have known they were in the presence of a dramatic god. How they could not?

I wrote about the play — and about two other HSC texts, Billy Elliot and The Truman Show — on my personal blog in August 2006: see Maggie Thatcher as Goneril… There are some links there that may prove useful for HSC students.

In case sceptics are reading this, I hasten to mention that Lear and the two movies mentioned (good as they are) are not all in the same unit in the HSC, nor would I regard them as all being equal.

You may find an informal account of a performance I saw a few year ago at The Bard, a Rabbit, and Ninglun.

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Posted by on December 26, 2006 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare, works/authors