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Only moments before King Lear plunges into madness, he asks the crucial question that drives William Shakespeare's play King Lear: 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: In order to "unburden'd crawl toward death" 1. 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 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: 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" According to Heilman, the natural order functions through the maintenance of "set relationships, duties, obligations and sanctions" 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: In both scenes, Lear initially places himself as the judge and places one or all of his daughters on trial Heilman This is significant because the identity of a judge is an implicitly authoritative one.