In The Duchess of Malfi, gender constructions are challenged within the ambiguous framework of what is sanctioned, and forbidden. Throughout the play, John Webster illustrates these societal dichotomies through the use of juxtaposed imagery. In a series of essays, I will discuss many of these polarities including water and fire, heaven and hell, and reality versus theater. Important in relationship to the water theme, is the idea of stillness. In the most famous line of the play, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” the Duchess reminds the audience (and her cast mates) that even in the face of death, she maintains honor, dignity, and in a position of authority and regality. A variation of the line is repeated several times throughout the play, by Duchess, Bosola, and once in reference to Ferdinand. In the opening scene of the play, Bosola entreats Cardinal with his line “I do haunt you still.” The meaning here is different, in that he is saying he will be persistently and disturbingly present on the mind of Cardinal, until he gets the recognition he feels he is deserving of. In Act III, foreshadowing the fate to come, when Antonio is asked about Ferdinand’s temperament and mental condition he says “those houses that are haunted are most still.” He tells Duchess, as a means of comforting her in the midst of murdering her, “Look you, the stars shine still.” Then, in the final act, Bosola reminds us of the looming presence of the Duchess in his line “Still, methinks the duchess haunts me.”
In the Bible, stillness is referred to as a need for hearing or being susceptible to God’s word and will. In addition, still waters, and eternal life and salvation are related themes in Christian doctrine. In the Bible, the word is used as “still small voice,” which is interpreted as the voice of one’s conscience (1 Kings 19:12). In the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “still” has multiple meanings, all of which are relevant in relationship to its repetitious and important use in the play. According to the OED, “Still” is of air or water, and when used as an adverb, means up to, and including the present, as in Duchess’ use, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (even now). It can also refer to the future. Despite the use of the world in the Bible, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word is found in the mid-16th century, as a derivative of the word “distill,” which means to purify, through the use of heat. In this sense, the volatile constituent of Duchess’ passion and desire is removed so that she becomes completely still (purified), in death. Frozen imagery is also used to convey stillness and/or death, and in direct opposition to heat and fire. Antonio alludes to the coming death and the image of a marble tombstone when he (ironically) speaks of marriage to Cariola: “Anaxarete was frozen into marble” (505). Shortly after Bosola kills Duchess, he feels remorse for his actions. He expresses this conflict and the inconstancy of humanity, in a reference to hot and cold. “While with vain hopes our faculties we tire, we seem to sweat in ice and freeze in fire” he says (540). As he begins to cry, he says his tears must have been “frozen up” while she was still alive (541). At the end of Act V, Scene II, just after Cardinal tells Bosola to kill Antonio, he feels a wave of remorse, and decides he will avenge the Duchess’ death by keeping Antonio alive and well. His allusion to death by using frozen imagery is as much about the death of his own morality, as it is about actual death. “In such slippery ice-pavements men had need to be frost-nailed well, they may break their necks else” (556).
Kermode, Frank. The Duchess of Malfi: Seven Masterpieces of Jacobean Drama. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.
Price, Hereward T. “The Function of Imagery in Webster.” PMLA 70.4 (1995): 717-39. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.