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Margaret Edson’s Wit is a stage presentation rich with word play, intertextual gestures, and, most importantly, with irony. Tracing the ordeal of Dr. Vivian Bearing, distinguished scholar of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne, from her diagnosis with stage four ovarian cancer through her treatment under the watchful eye of Dr. Harvey Kelekian, Wit is built primarily on the complex ironies available through the dramatic strategy of role reversal. Dr. Bearing the renowned researcher and scholar suddenly finds herself recast as patient Bearing under the day-to-day care of one of her own former students, Jason Poser, and Susie Monaghan, primary nurse for the cancer unit. Although her professional standing as “a force” in her field link Dr. Bearing to Dr. Kelekian, the ironies of her new role place her much lower on the institutional hierarchy.
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Despite Poser’s almost celebratory recountings of Dr. Bearing’s reputation on campus and her own recollections of her rise to prominence internationally, within the cancer unit she is but another patient, a number reduced to a series of tests, of carefully measured inputs and outputs, victim of various scrutinies by interns and of dehumanizing treatments from orderlies and equipment operators. The ironies are not lost on Dr. Bearing: cancer, and more profoundly death, renders all equal in the end. No number of scholarly citations or well-reviewed publications can elevate her beyond patient status. As Donne’s own poetry reverberates through this play, Dr. Bearing must confront the real-world implications of Donne’s famous statement that “Death be not Proud.”
And it is this refocusing of the famed Dr. Bearing that leads the especially literate members of the audience to understand a second irony of the play, specifically the ironies arising from the two Donnes that existed in the seventeenth-century. In focusing her life work on what have come to be known as the Dr. Donne poems, notably the “Holy Sonnets” and various meditations, Dr. Bearing turned away from the more corporeal writings of the early Donne, including such poems as “The Sun Rising” (with its rendering of two lovers chiding the sun) and the overtly sexual “The Flea.”
This clearly delineated division in Donne’s corpus of work reflects Dr. Bearing’s own divided self. On the one hand a scholar of renown, she is a woman who has essentially turned away from her own body, relegating social life and personal relationships to a place of minor importance in her life. Without partner, lover, or even close friend, Bearing is, despite her claims to the contrary, negligent in her scholarship, unable and unwilling to even attempt to reconcile Dr. Donne (the spiritual) with John Donne (the corporeal and sexual). Ironic, too, is the fact that, in the end, the scholarly lover of the intensely spiritual poems is, like all patients in the ward, a prisoner of a body ravaged by cancer, a body that suffers and fails, and a body that can and does overwhelm even the strongest mind and strongest spirit.
Despite her fame as a Donne scholar, Dr. Bearing has, ironically, achieved tellingly little standing as a person outside the classroom. During the entirety of her stay in hospital she is visited by only one person, her mentor and the equally famous, albeit much older and much healthier, Donne scholar Professor E.M. Ashford. And it is in Ashford’s single and final visit that yet another irony makes itself known, for in her final days the great Dr. Bearing cannot herself bear to hear another Donne poem, cannot bear to continue her wanderings through the metaphysical conceits and carefully place commas that she believes have prepared her for her own passing. Confronting her own mortality, and lost in the very real implications of her own bodily suffering, patient Bearing turns away from Donne to find solace in Ashford’s quasi-maternal reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book Runaway
Bunny, which serves, as the elderly teacher reminds her dying student, of a brilliant analogy for the presence of God in this life. In the final irony, then, the renowned Dr. Bearing makes peace with her God through a book that is, unlike the densities of the poetry she lived in, child’s play.
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