Regan clearly tries to undercut Lear’s rapidly waning authority. As her subversion becomes clearer, Lear denies it in ways that become more and more painful to watch. Regan and Cornwall refuse his demands to speak with them, and Lear forgets that, since he has given up his power, he can no longer give them orders. Goneril and Regan eventually insult Lear by telling him that he is senile: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (2.4.196). These barbed words from Regan skirt the issue of Lear’s loss of authority and point to something that he can neither deny nor control—that he is growing old.
The sisters’ refusal to allow Lear to keep his hundred knights and Regan’s polite but steadfast refusal to allow him to stay with her instead of Goneril finally begin to make Lear understand that he can no longer command like a king. But he stands in fierce denial of this loss of authority; being forced to this realization causes him to alternate between grief and an anger so powerful that it seems to be driving him mad. We see flashes of this anger and madness when he curses Goneril, and then, later, when he declares that instead of returning to Goneril’s house without servants, he will flee houses entirely and live in the open air.
The servants that Lear wants to keep with him are symbols of more than just his authority. When Regan asks why he needs even one attendant, Lear bursts out, “O, reason not the need!” (2.4.259). Human nature, he says, would be no different from that of animals if humans never needed more than the fundamental necessities of life. Clearly, Lear needs his servants not because of the service that they provide him but because of what they represent: his authority and his importance—in essence, the identity that he has built for himself. Regan and Goneril, in denying Lear his servants, deny their father that which he needs the most: not what he needs to be a king, but what he needs to be a human being.
Lear’s cry of “O fool, I shall go mad!” foreshadows the fate that soon befalls him (2.4.281). His words also recall the earlier scene in which Edgar dons a disguise and assumes the identity of a “Bedlam beggar” (2.3.14). “Bedlam” was a nickname for the Bethlehem hospital in Elizabethan London where the mentally ill were housed. When Edgar rips his clothes to shreds and smears himself with dirt, he is taking on the disguise of a “poor Tom” (2.3.20), one of the insane Bedlam beggars who roam the countryside sticking themselves with pins and begging “with roaring voices” (2.3.14). Thus, in these scenes, both Lear and Edgar flee from civilization, leaving the safety of walls and roofs behind in favor of the chaos and confusion of the natural world.