Is the Duke in "My Last Duchess" a "Bluebeard"?  

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an interesting question. In the original French folk tale, Bluebeard's latest wife disobeys her husband's orders and looks into a little room forbidden to her, where she discovers the bodies of her husband's previous wives.

It is easy to think of Bluebeard in connection with the Duke in "My Last Duchess." He seems about as selfish and cruel as the Bluebeard in the folk tale; and he speaks of his dead wife as "my last duchess," which could be interpreted as "my most recent duchess." But the Bluebeard in the folk tale was marrying poor girls and didn't seem interested in collecting dowries. The Duke in "My Last Duchess" seems more interested in marrying for money. Therefore, he would not have such an easy time collecting wives as Bluebeard, who was also a nobleman. The Duke is a selfish man but not a madman like Bluebeard. That French nobleman was totally insane. He needed lots of wives, because he was a serial killer. And because of his position and power, he could demand any girl he wanted to marry and would get her.

It seems possible that the arrogant Duke in "My Last Duchess" might have had another wife before his last duchess, but it does not seem possible that he had a whole collection of wives before seeking to marry the Count's daughter. He tells his visitor:

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.

He must have had the poor, innocent girl killed, but he did not do the killing himself. He is not like Bluebeard, who must have personally killed all his wives and enjoyed doing it. 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To clarify the above answer, the fact that the Duke did not kill his wife himself but gave commands to have it done is inferable from the following lines.

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.

Immediately after saying that "all smiles stopped together," he refers his guest to the painting and tells him she is no longer alive. There must be an implicit cause-and-effect relationship between his commands and her death. The commands could not have been to his wife to stop smiling but to guards or soldiers. The Duke explicitly tells his guest

Even had you skill 
In speech (which I have not)--to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss
Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, 
--E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop.

His lack of skill in speech is largely shown by the awkward and crude rhymed couplets. The Duke was too proud to talk to his wife directly about what he considered her faults. He also feels he does not have the skill to express himself. He did not want to demean himself by arguing with his wife, who might protest and argue with this autocratic man who is accustomed to being obeyed without question. So he simply orders her murdered and keeps her portrait, which he values more than his beautiful, living wife.