Due to the universal human experience, all human beings are subject to the inherited ambiguity associated with the continuous cycle of life and death, and ultimately the search for the truth regarding their own mortality. The role of texts in our society is to allow for the examination of our own consciousness and the evaluation and awareness of our human nature. Intertextuality allows for a deepened philosophical exploration of mortality through the use of concepts and ideas that connect and resonate with the audience on a deeper interpersonal level, creating an ongoing conversation about the profound nature of life and truth. Margaret Edson postmodern play ‘wit’ and John Donne’s metaphysical poetry both represent death’s ability to reveal ultimate truths about one’s values and attitudes throughout life, allowing for the examination of humanity’s complex relationship with the abstract nature of death and impermanence.
All texts are fundamentally shaped by the prevailing sociocultural values of their time period, a comparative study of texts illuminates transcendental human concerns that are not limited to context or temporal length of human existence. Context, in literature, acts as a frame that surrounds a text and provides resources for its appropriate interpretation and reception. John Donne, a man heavily influenced by 17th century religious beliefs and the academic climate of the metaphysical poetry movement, used his poetic works to explore life and truth. Donne’s poetry is challenging and broadening his intimate audience’s personal values and beliefs, which were under the influence of the hegemonic principles that were established by the Catholic Church. When analysing Donne’s sociocultural context of religiosity, collective attitudes towards death and spirituality can be seen throughout his poetry, represented by the repetitive conceits of resurrection, redemption and the significance of humanities attempts to prevail over sin and achieve eternal life. This theological ideology is portrayed throughout his sonnets, in ‘Death be not proud’ as he refers to the idea that death is momentary, “one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally”. Donne draws on the antithesis between sleeping and waking to reflect on the Christian beliefs of the afterlife and the concept of redemption. The in opening apostrophe, “Death be not proud though some have called thee mighty and dreadful”, Donne develops a metaphysical conceit through the personification of death, attempting to epitomise his valiant struggle to find solace from his impending mortality through intellect. In ‘Hymne to God, my God’ the line “so, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, lord.” highlights the collective obsession with Gods judgement and acceptance, emphasising the social impact of organised religion on the perceived meaning of life and one’s interpretation of truth. J C Sisson purports “for the Elizabethans, and for John Donne, the unseen other world of eternity was not only more certain in means belief, but it was closer to the world of human reality”, a notion extensively explored throughout Donne’s work. Contrast to the periods of highly saturated religious beliefs and obsessions with attaining eternal bliss seen in Donne’s works, Margret Edson and her engagement with the postmodernism aspects of literature, aims to reshape humanities relationship with death and the religious certainty of the afterlife. The postmodern era saw the decline of religious faith and the discovery of vast unexplored irrational and unconscious forces in regions of the human cognizance, introducing concepts of absurdity and nihilism to the human intellect, furthering the apparent loss of human spirituality and compassion in the age of totalitarianism. These postmodern values and attitudes are represented by the dehumanisation of Vivian during her treatment, reducing her to a title of purely medical research, seen in Vivian’s proclamation “what we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just as the dust jacket”, highlighting postmodern society’s excessive desire and demand for scientific knowledge, emphasising the greater concern for data and a lesser concern with the fundamental human emotions, empathy and compassion. Edson has characterised both Jason and Vivian to display strictly postmodern philosophical belief’s, resembling absurdist and nihilist ideals, as seen in the constant use of intellectualism to obscure mortal vulnerabilities, as seen in Vivian’s ironic hyperbole describing how she knew, ‘all about life and death. I am…a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnet’. Through this statement, Edson establishes how the academic comprehension of death within Vivian’s research orientated existence has hindered her ability to grasp the complexities of mortality as a tangible human emotion and experience, positioning the audience to emphasise with Vivian’s omnipresent fear of mortality, and her use of intellectualism to gain a sense of control over immutable existential anxieties.
Death, as a force of nature, allows for the examination of one’s inherent beliefs and ideologies surrounding the subjective inference of the abstract statement ‘a life well lived’ and the implications this has on the audience’s perspective of the narrative. Edson has characterised Vivian to allow the audience to make judgements on her life’s value, leading to questions about the finality and authority of death. The use of metatheatrical elements such as breaking of the fourth wall, as seen in Vivian’s disclosure with the audience “Ive got less than 2 hours, then curtain” allows for the reality of death to be stripped of significance and power, diminishing it to the act of closing the curtain, furthering the underlying notion of the simplistic nature of death and allowing the audience to judge the significance of Vivian’s singularly focused life by unconsciously comparing it to their own. In Vivian’s death scene, the postmodern philosophical idea that ‘death is a release/cleansing from the pain of living’ is shown through the use of minimal lighting and emotion evoking phrases “she walks away from the scene, towards a little light” , referencing the familiar concept of ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’ as a cleansing force and a removal of suffering. Edson has used death in this manner to allow the audience, through Vivian, to see the inadequacies of her hyper-intellectualized view of life, allowing them to reflect on the power they offer death and they considerations they reflect on to regard a life well lived. Similarly, Donne challenges the inherit complex nature of death in ‘Death be not proud’ by using the paradox “death, thou shall die” he personifies death, establishing its powerlessness over mortals and that it should not be feared, because for Christians, it will result in an eternal bliss. Furthing the concept of diminishing the authority of death, Donne writes death as “thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and the desperate men” , personifying death as reliant on the forces of humanity, introducing the notion that ‘without mortals, death is nothing’ positioning the audience to realise death is not a separate entity, but is instead parallel to humanity and the human condition. Death is seen the final reality of human life, not just for the banal reason that death is inevitable, but because the finiteness and vulnerability of our existence in this world is what gives urgency, meaning and notability to human life.
Although composed in vastly differing contexts, John Donne’s metaphysical poems and Margaret Edson’s postmodern play Wit, retains significance through the examination of mortal fears and the approach of spiritual processes necessary to gain acceptance of death. Through intertextual readings of these texts, the audience gains an insightful understanding of the way context shapes our perception of our own life and truth and allows for a greater understanding of death, redemption and the enduring nature of human condition.