What are two significant reasons for the semicolon in the play W;t?

Two significant reasons for the semicolon in W;t can be seen in John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud," and later in the play, when Vivian is literally near death. Depending on the edition of Donne's poem, either a semicolon or a comma is used to separate life and death. Vivian's professor insists a comma is correct, as "nothing but a breath separates life from death." Vivian later tries to conquer death, utilizing the semicolon in her recitation but to no avail.

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The semicolon in the title of Margaret Edson’s play W;t is significant for two reasons: this punctuation mark is misused by Vivian in her attempts to control both literary meaning and death. Stronger than the comma, the semicolon links two independent clauses or ideas. Unlike a period, the semicolon creates a pause—but not a complete definitive break or separation—between the two ideas. In his poem “Death Be Not Proud,” John Donne either used or did not use the semicolon, depending on which scholarly edition is read. This sonnet examines man's struggle with death and the use of “intellect and drama” to defeat death.

When Vivian is a student, she analyzes a version of the poem which reads, “And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!” Vivian’s esteemed professor Dr. E.M. Ashford admonishes her for using an incorrect version and presents the correct, more scholarly version as “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” The substitution of the semicolon for the comma between “no more” and “Death” is significant in meaning. Dr. Ashford believes that “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from death." There is no “insuperable barrier” between life and death, “not semicolons, just a comma.” Therefore, Donne's poem demonstrates that it is futile to try to conquer and control death. Attempting to insert a strong barrier (like a semicolon) in between life and death is useless. Death should be accepted as the next stage after life. Just as the past flows into the present, life progresses into death.

When Vivian is literally near death, she attempts yet again to replace the comma with a semicolon. She recites her version of the line “as if trying to conjure her own ending” with

And Death—capital D— shall be no more—semicolon.

Death— capital D —thou shalt die—ex-cla-mation point!

Yet the semicolon does not create a barrier between life and death for Vivian. After reciting these lines her way, she is not miraculously better, cured, and/or saved. She realizes that

the line doesn’t work. She shakes her head and exhales with resignation.

Again, the semicolon gives Vivian control over neither meaning in the analysis of poetry nor design of her own passing.

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