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"More than Nature Needs": The Disruptive Identity Superflux in King Lear

Tiffany Liao '10

Only moments before King Lear plunges into madness, he asks the crucial question that drives William Shakespeare's play King Lear: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (1.4.250). In this paper, I will complicate Lear's centuries-old question by examining the process by which he arrives at this point of identity confusion. In the beginning of the play, Lear renounces the identities that currently define his selfhood: his kingship and his fatherhood (Dollimore 195). In order to "unburden'd crawl toward death" (1.1.41), Lear opts to cede rule to his daughters and live as an infantilized subject on their "kind nursery" (1.1.123). Yet rather than make a complete shift, Lear clings to the authority that his kingship and fatherhood grant him. He attempts to simultaneously occupy the contradictory identities of father and infant, and of king and subject. Therefore, while Lear's question of selfhood can be read as originating from a loss of identity, I argue that Lear actually suffers from the reverse—an inundation, or "superflux" of identity, to employ a term from Margreta de Grazia (28). While de Grazia uses superflux to describe the play's excessive materiality in terms of Lear's physical possessions, I believe this notion of overwhelming and disruptive excess can also be applied to the abstract; specifically, Lear's multiple identities. Lastly, I propose that Lear descends into a mental state of chaotic disorder because this superflux disrupts the natural order of the play world.

In This Great Stage: Image and Structure in King Lear, Robert B. Heilman defines the natural order of King Lear as an "informing principle" by which the play world is organized into "a desirable and permanent order of things" (118). According to Heilman, the natural order functions through the maintenance of "set relationships, duties, obligations and sanctions" (143). I argue that in the monarchical country in Lear, "set relationships" must necessarily include the king-subject relationship and the father-infant relationship. To be a king, one cannot be a subject, and to be a father, one cannot be an infant. There is also an implicit interdependence in these relationships that the superflux threatens. A man must have subjects to be king and a man must produce an infant to be a father. Furthermore, there must be distance between these interdependent identities since a subject and an infant must remain distinct from the king and the father. In the play, any disruption of these identity definitions results in the opposite of nature and thus the opposite of order. The chaotic result of these transgressions is represented by Lear's mental state and is reflected in the raging storm that surrounds him.

Lear's superflux of identity manifests itself most evidently in the two judgment scenes: the love test in Act I and the storm-drenched trial in Act 3. In both scenes, Lear initially places himself as the judge and places one or all of his daughters on trial (Heilman 148). This is significant because the identity of a judge is an implicitly authoritative one. By placing himself again and again in this position, Lear reveals his consistent desire to retain aspects of his kingly identity even when he is at the height of his madness in later scenes. Yet as the scenes play out, he increasingly attempts to take on multiple identities. Lear becomes disordered even as he tries to enforce order, revealing his ambivalence and confusion about actually maintaining his kingly identity.

Reflecting his uncertainty, Lear's first royal action is to give up royal power by prematurely abdicating his kingdom to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia:

Give me the map there. [Takes a  map.]
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburden'd crawl toward death. (1.1.37-41)

In this passage, Lear begins to disrupt the natural order by giving up the throne before his death, and then by dividing his kingdom into three potentially weaker regions. Furthermore, Lear's decision to grant the land according to which daughter can say she loves him most also defies the natural order. According to the natural order, the largest portion of land does not go to "where nature doth with merit challenge" (1.1.53) but rather to the eldest legitimate heir, Goneril. However, if Lear were to relinquish his kingship completely, including the "name and th'additions" (1.1.137-138), and acquiesce to the will of the new rulers, the natural order is still preserved. The monarchy would be passed from parent to child in a complete transition of power. Lear's greatest transgression against the natural order, then, is his refusal to pass on his identities of kingship and fatherhood completely.

As described in the quoted passage, Lear's intent is that his daughters, as "younger strengths," rule in his stead while he lives as a subject in their households. He tells his daughters: "we will divest us both of rule, / Interest of territory, cares of state" (1.1.49-50). The dual meaning of "divest" to signify both the stripping of assets and the stripping of clothing is especially important since Lear's superflux of identities are represented throughout the play as a superflux of material possessions. As de Grazia suggests, throughout the play, Lear not only divests himself of assets but also of his clothing (31). This is most notable in the second judgment scene, which will be examined more closely later in the essay. What Lear does not divest himself of, however, is his authority. He reserves for himself "the name and all th'additions to a king" (1.1.137-38) and a retinue of a hundred knights. Although Lear promises Cornwall and Albany the "sway, revenue, execution of the rest" (1.1.137), he does not seem to realize these are inseparable from the "name and all th'additions" of the kingship. Lear essentially tries to separate kingly authority from kingship and patriarchal authority from fatherhood (Dollimore 196). Lear divorces himself from all responsibilities of fatherhood and kingship so that he can enjoy a life without the "cares and business from our age" (1.1.37).  In rejecting the "cares" of his age, Lear rejects his age entirely and thus regresses to a childlike identity. The word "crawl" evokes the infantile existence Lear desires, resting on the "kind nursery" of his daughters (1.1.123).  Lear wants the privileges of living as a child even while maintaining the authority of a royal, two states which are irreconcilable.

Although Goneril and Regan pledge devotion "as much as child e'ver lov'd or father found" (1.1.59), the love they promise to show Lear exceeds the familial bond. Lear demands a love that obviates all other loves—he seeks to be both the object of their love as a father figure and the subject of their love as an infant figure. Cordelia alone seems to realize how Lear's existence as a father-infant and king-subject threatens the natural order. She answers that she will love Lear "According to my bond, no more no less" (1.1.93). Cordelia refuses to regard Lear as both father and as infant—instead she limits herself to a singular "bond" or relationship, "no more no less." Cordelia further rejects Lear's proposal that she act simultaneously and contradictorily as mother and daughter by telling Lear that her future husband will take "half my love with him" (1.1.101). By evoking a husband, Cordelia reminds Lear of the natural order under which infants are produced not from fathers but from a "bond" with a husband. By alluding to her future marriage, Cordelia reveals that she only intends to create an infant in accordance with the natural order.

Lear responds to Cordelia's answer with the "rage of an abandoned infant," even as he banishes her to reassert his paternal authority over her (Adelman 118). Paradoxically, even as he wants to be mothered by her, he punishes her with the authority of a father, saying to the King of France: "Let her be thine, for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again" (1.1.264-265). Although Lear calls Cordelia a "wretch whom nature is asham'd / Almost t'acknowledge hers" (1.1.212-213), it is her very desire to maintain the natural order that results in her expulsion from the kingdom. It is Lear whose desire to be both king-subject and father-infant that defies nature. At this point, the loyal Kent speaks out against Lear's actions, declaring that "nor our nature nor our place can bear" what took place (1.1.174). His use of "nature" and "place" reveals that Kent is aware of how Lear's decision disrupts the natural order and warns of future repercussions.

Indeed, we quickly see the tension and disruption that Lear's attempt to occupy multiple identities causes when he arrives to live at Goneril's castle. Lear reveals he has no intention of giving up his kingly authority, regularly subordinating Goneril's wishes. Goneril complains that Lear strikes her servants, his knights "grow riotous, and himself upbraids us / On every trifle" (1.3.7-8). Even as a member of her household, Lear still assumes a position of authority that allows him to criticize the new rulers Goneril and Albany. This authority is bolstered by the presence of his one hundred knights, whom Goneril bitterly claims display such "epicurism and lust" that her palace seems "more like a tavern or a brothel" (1.4.239-241). Lear grows angry and strikes Goneril's servant Oswald when the man addresses him as "My lady's father" (1.3.78) although that is truly his title now that he has given his throne to his daughters.

While Goneril may be referencing and even exaggerating Lear's behavior to fully usurp her father's authority, the truth remains that Lear is overstepping his boundaries as subject and as "infant." Given Lear's impulsive and violent behavior towards Goneril's servants, it is not entirely without provocation that Goneril worries her father will "enguard his dotage with their pow'rs / And hold our lives in mercy" (1.4.349-50). Goneril is within her rights as a ruler to secure her kingship against all potential threats from her subjects by dismissing the knights (Abate 183). Goneril's entreaty to Lear, saying: "I pray you, father, being weak, seem so" (2.4.204), is a reminder that she is now the ruler and that he must be willing to submit to her authority when he is in her household. He cannot claim both to desire rest on her kind nursery and also to retain his patriarchal authority over her.

Fed up with Lear and his knights, Goneril enforces her authority by reducing Lear's retinue to only fifty knights. Faced with this prospect, Lear again lashes out like a child at Goneril. In his rage, Lear "calls up the mother she has become in his mind" and attacks the origin of her motherhood (Adelman 118). He specifically focuses on her fertility, pleading that "Into her womb convey sterility / Dry up in her the organs of increase" (1.4.275-276). In that way, Lear expresses his selfish desire that he remain the only "infant" that she will have. By cursing her with sterility, Lear also removes Goneril's ability to be a mother at all and thus denies all potential authority that she may have as a parent.

Lear's reaction to the disbanding of his knights is so forceful precisely because he views the disbanding as a direct threat to his superflux existence. He views Goneril's dismissal of his knights as an attempt to firmly define him as subject and infant. Confronted with the idea that he might lose his kingly and fatherly authority, Lear verbalizes his first moment of identity confusion:

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? 'Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (1.4.222-22)

In this passage, the first signs of chaos appear as Lear struggles to contain his identity superflux. In this single passage, Lear shifts between first and third person, alternately speaking of "Lear" as a separate individual and also as himself. The passage is peppered with questions that force numerous caesuras that break up any structural flow. The effect is a Lear that pauses, doubts and interrupts himself. The only definitive statements that are not questions are negations: "'Tis not so" and "This is not Lear." He appears certain of who he is not, yet he is at a loss for who he is: subject or king, infant or father.

Significantly, the last line, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" can be read in two different ways-an ambiguity that mimics Lear's multiple identities. Although "Who" and "am" are stressed in both interpretations, the line can be read as either "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" or "Who is that can tell me who I am?" The first interpretation has a defiant tone; Lear appears to challenge anyone to try and define him. The second reading, however, has a plaintive tone; Lear is asking for someone to inform him of his identity. The two potential readings allow for both Lear's authoritative identity as king/father and also his more passive identity as subject/infant. Lear struggles to hold on to this superflux of identity as Goneril and then Regan begin to assert their kingly authorities.

When Lear discovers that both Goneril and Regan refuse to house him and his knights, he admits that his retinue of knights is "superfluous" but defends his right to have "more than nature needs" (2.4.263-264). The phrase "more than nature needs" alludes to a natural order that rejects the excess that is symbolized by Lear's superfluous knights (Heilman 117). Lear counters this by explaining that man defines himself through his ability to possess beyond what "nature needs" or what is natural for him. Although Lear is speaking about excess material possessions, this attitude holds true for his excess of contradictory identities. Lear will suffer precisely because he has so much in excess of what "nature needs," in terms of multiple identities he tries to claim. Furious with his daughters, Lear exits the stage with Kent and the Fool in tow, declaring "O fool, I shall go mad!" at the exact moment that a storm begins to rage (2.4.286).

Heilman argues that the storm that plagues Lear's physical body can be read as an external reflection of the "storms" that begin to plague Lear's mind (73). Recognizing the fact that he cannot hope to retain his kingly authority while also evading his responsibilities, Lear is overwhelmed by his identity superflux and notes that the storm mirrors "The tempest in my mind" (3.4.12). The images of overflowing water during the tempest serve as an appropriate parallel to what is happening inside Lear's mind (de Grazia 28). Lear suffers a mental state in which all his various excessive identities spill over into each other and yet cannot be reconciled. This superflux threatens the definitions of the natural order that holds the identities of king separate from subject and father separate from infant.  This overflow of identities creates a disordered mental confusion that is mirrored by Lear's torrential environment.

Gloucester describes the storm as an unnatural occurrence, saying that "such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never / Remember to have heard" (3.2.47-48). Gloucester goes on to note that "Man's nature cannot carry / Th' affliction nor the fear" (3.2.48-49). Both the storm and Lear's madness are considered unnatural phenomena that threaten "man's nature," both literally and metaphorically. The storm might endanger Lear's physical nature by drowning him in the torrential rains and exposing him to the elements. Lear's madness, however, endangers man's nature, or his ordered identity, by threatening to overflow the definitions of singular selfhood as defined by the natural order. In this way, Lear himself becomes a tempest. As his madness progresses, Lear even begins to encourage the superflux, crying out for the "cataracts and hurricanoes" to flood the country "Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd our cocks!" (3.2.2-3). Lear calls for a physical flood so disastrous that "all distinctions would dissolve in an amorphous muddle" (de Grazia 28). Lear desires for his external environment to reflect his mental state in which all identity distinctions are indeed collapsed into an amorphous muddle by his superflux of conflicting identities.

Lear's mental state is so disordered that Gloucester, upon viewing Lear, cries out, "O ruin'd piece of nature" (4.4.137). Gloucester recognizes that Lear has transgressed the natural order by taking on numerous contradictory identities and so is "ruin'd" by the resulting disorder and chaos. Yet in the midst of this storm, Lear continues to try to hold onto his kingly and fatherly authority by hallucinating that he is judging an imaginary court that will sentence his daughters for their crimes against him. Lear even crowns himself with "rank fumiter and furror weeds" (4.4.3) in a "parody of kingship" (Heilman 78). This second judgment scene differs from the first in that Lear's identity superflux manifests itself even more prominently. During the love test, Lear consciously attempts to manipulate the superflux to his advantage so that he can live "unburden'd." He claims only certain parts of the identities of king, subject, father and infant that he desired. In this scene, however, Lear loses all ability to channel the superflux in an advantageous manner and appears to switch identities without any control. Lear's mock trial encapsulates the height of his identity confusion.

In the space of one monologue in 4.6, Lear switches from subject to king repeatedly and speaks from these multiple perspectives. First, Lear lambasts "the great image of authority" and charges that "a dog's / obey'd in office" (4.6.158-159). Lear embodies the perspective of the embittered subject under the monarchy, criticizing an institution that relies on blind obedience to authority in order to function. Here, Lear speaks as a victim of the system and thus identifies as the subject of a king. A few lines later, however, Lear switches to identify with that "great image of authority" when he claims that he is "every inch a king" (4.6.107). He even gloats in "how the subject quakes" (4.6.108) before his power. By the end of his monologue, Lear has also devolved from verse into prose. Lear's ability to adopt multiple speech patterns, the verse which denotes higher classes and the prose which denotes lower classes, emphasizes his imbalanced state of self. Adding to the chaos, Lear's speech as a subject is in verse while his speech as a king turns into prose, further confusing and conflating these two identities. Traditional markers of identity, such as speech, are dissolving under the pressure of Lear's identity superflux.

Despite his mental state, Lear displays a surprisingly clear and harsh perspective of the world, such that the disguised Edgar declares that there is "reason in madness!" (4.6.175). Lear exposes the corruption of the justice   system, lambasting the fact that the rich often escape punishment since "Robes and furr'd gowns hide all" (4.6.165).  Lear howls at the inequality of the rich and the poor, stating: "Plate sin with gold, / And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks; / Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it" (4.6.165-167)." Ironically, as king, Lear's role was the dispenser of justice—he is the one that wielded the "lance of justice." His critique of the justice system, then, is also a veiled critique of himself and his abilities as king. Furthermore, Lear's reference to the "robes and furr'd gowns" reveal his hypocritical avoidance of the fact that his own kingly robes also protected his sins from being punished.

It is important to note that Lear criticizes the monarchy in the abstract—he never uses "I" or "me"—and so continues to avoid full responsibility. When he does use the personal subject, it is from a kingly perspective when he declares to the imaginary court to "take that of me, my friend, who have the power / To seal th' accuser's lips" (4.6.169-170). Lear can only take on the personal subject when he is the one ordering the punishment, but he evades it when he is the one who must be punished. Lear identifies as a subject when he blames the king, yet switches to identify as a king when it comes time to mete out justice. The King, as an arbiter of justice, is ironically free of any accountability and beyond reproach. Lear is caught in a contradictory state of self-criticism that paradoxically leaves him free of any culpability. However, Lear's demand that someone "Pull off my boots. Harder, harder!" (4.6.173) may reveal his implicit desire to be like the "Poor naked wretches" (3.4.28) so that he can be punished. He wants to "arm" himself in rags so that he, too, can feel the punishment that the poor suffer. Yet even in this statement, Lear is commanding someone else to act, and in so doing, is still struggling to retain some semblance of kingly authority. Thus, Lear desires both the power to punish and the ability to be punished, conflicting desires which are mutually exclusive according to the natural order. Further confusing matters, Lear is railing against the very system that places him in a position to critique. Moreover, as long as Lear retains this position of privileged critique, he is unassailable by the system. The king levies punishments; he does not suffer them. Adding a further layer of contradiction, Lear is claiming a kingly authority that is not currently his. Even as Lear struggles to order punishments and also be punished, he is ranting and raving while dressed in rags in the midst of an imaginary court. The superflux contains overlapping contradictions that are impossible to reconcile within a single person.

Therefore, Lear's desire to rid himself of the material excess of his clothes may signify his desire to shed his conflicting identities and complete the "divestment" of his identities of king and father that he began earlier in the play. Lear, after reaching the culminating point of his madness, is verbalizing a longing for a single identity and for rest from his wanderings—alluded to by the taking off of his boots (Heilman 81). At the moment that Lear begins to seek the return of the natural order, the storm calms down. Cordelia soon arrives with the invading French forces, intending to reinstate Lear as king of England. Cordelia's return represents the potential for the  restoration of the natural order. Cordelia, horrified at the unnatural sight of Lear as a helpless "child-changed father" (4.7.17), begs the gods to "Cure this great breach in his abused nature!" (4.7.15). She recognizes that Lear has disrupted the natural order, and immediately attempts to repair the damage. Cordelia orders her servants to cover Lear's nakedness and "put fresh garments" (4.7.20) on him in a symbolic attempt to return Lear to his identity as father and king. She treats his body with herbs and urges him to rest, in the hopes that the healing of his physical state will soon be reflected in his mental state. Despite Cordelia's attempts, Lear "Remembers not these garments" (4.7.69) and cannot draw a sense of his former self from them. Lear remains disoriented after experiencing the dissolution of his numerous identities, failing to recognize his surroundings and declaring, "I will not swear these are my hands" (5.3.56). His confusion appears to have spread to the nature of identity in general, which becomes apparent when he cannot recognize Cordelia and Kent nor even discern if they are alive or dead. Signifying the inefficacy of her efforts, Cordelia and her army suffer defeat, and she is hanged. Cordelia's death as the last surviving heir of the royal line further disrupts the natural order as there are no legitimate heirs to rule in her stead.

The disorder caused by Lear's identity superflux is insurmountable precisely because it originates from Lear. Lear, as king, is charged with preserving order. Instead, he is the one who disrupts order by prematurely and incompletely abdicating his throne. His transgression of the natural order results directly and indirectly in war, death and suffering. Lear betrays his primary duty to preserve the kingdom and instead, endangers the kingdom when he turns the kingship into a source of chaos and disorder. Although Lear intends to "resume the shape which thou dost think / I have cast off for ever" (1.4.306-307), he can no longer reclaim his identity as king and father because this "shape" has been irreparably destroyed by the identity superflux. Furthermore, as Heilman points out, Lear's actions are also public actions since he is the king (164). Therefore, I propose that Lear's inversion of his kingly duty warps not only his nature but the nature of the entire land. Lear's continued existence serves as a constant point of disruption to the natural order. As we see in the play, the natural order begins its restoration only after Lear dies and Albany and Edgar are given control.

The play is a true tragedy precisely because chaos originates from order, unlike a comedy in which order gradually grows out of chaos. Indicating Lear's lingering influence on the natural order, the play suggests a resolution to the chaotic state of England that is left somewhat ambiguous since the throne may go to either Albany or Edgar. The play finishes before it definitively resolves all its issues (Booth 11). Moreover, while Albany and Edgar are both figures that appear to be secure in their identities and to be capable of maintaining the natural order, their rise to power is not the resolution we would expect. According to the natural order, Cordelia should have be the one to return triumphantly to England and, empowered by her legitimacy, restore order to the land. Her sudden and unexpected death speaks to the depth to which Lear's transgression has damaged the natural order. Furthermore, Lear's transgression of the natural order throws a shadow of a doubt on anyone who succeeds to the throne by setting a dangerous precedent. While the potential for a restoration of the natural order is suggested, its successful reinstatement is far from guaranteed and not without substantial ambivalence.


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Adelman, Janet. "Suffocating Mothers in King Lear." Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest. New York, NY: Routledge, 1992. 103-129.

Booth, Stephen. "Part I on the greatness of King Lear." King Lear, Macbeth, indefinition and tragedy. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1983. 4-31.

De Grazia, Margreta. "The ideology of superfluous things: King Lear as period piece." Subject and object in Renaissance culture. Ed. Margreta De Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass. 1st ed. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1996. 17-42.

Dollimore, Jonathan. "King Lear (c. 1605-6) and Essentialist Humanism." Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993. 189-203.

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Shakespeare, William. "King Lear." The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David M. Bevington. 3rd ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1980. 1168-1215.


Tiffany Liao is a senior Honors English Literature major, with a minor in Spanish. She wrote this paper on the disruptive effects of Lear's occupation of multiple conflicting identities in King Lear for Nora Johnson's Shakespeare seminar. After first encountering Lear in high school English and subsequently studying the play in several Swarthmore classes, Tiffany is delighted to have come to a satisfying if somewhat forced full circle with the raving monarch. She plans to spend her life reading, writing, reading about writing and writing about reading.