In this dramatic monolog, the Duke shows a portrait of his late wife to a visitor. As he talks of her, demeaning her character, he reveals that she in actuality had been a lovely, sensitive woman, full of joy, while he himself is cruel, jealous, proud, and arrogant.
He felt great jealousy because the duchess found joy all around her and favored others besides himself with her smiles:
. . . . Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek;
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. . . . She had
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
Whe looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
The Duke's jealousy and his arrogance are shown in his attitude toward his family name, representative of his social station. He resents that the duchess appreciated a sunset or a cherry bough as much as she valued taking his name:
. . . as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.
The Duke clearly believed that his wife had not given him the respect he deserved simply for being who he was; his sense of superiority and his haughty attitude are obvious.
Although his wife displeased him, the Duke explains, he would never "stoop" to express his feelings in order to correct her behavior. Ruled by pride, he chooses another way of dealing with her imperfections:
Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.
When the Duke's jealousy and wounded pride became unbearable, he "gave commands" stopping "all smiles," strongly implying he ordered the duchess be killed. He is both cold and cruel.
An interesting passage concludes the poem. As he shows his visitor downstairs, the Duke directs his attention to a sculpture of Neptune taming a seahorse. It is an ironic metaphor for the Duke's relationship with the duchess. Like the seahorse, his duchess had evinced a free spirit; rather than lower himself to "tame" her, he simply had her destroyed.
He resented that the duchess