How is power presented in "My Last Duchess"?

In "My Last Duchess," the power held by the Duke over his late wife is presented as absolute. His control of her is so extreme that even though she has died, he controls who may view her painting. He also describes that through his "commands" alone, he was able to put an end to her smiles and, by implication, her life.

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Power can be positional, personal, coercive, or persuasive. The power presented by the duke in "My Last Duchess" is positional and coercive.

Positional power comes from the outside authority a person is granted because of their status position in a hierarchy. The duke ranks above the duchess because...

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Power can be positional, personal, coercive, or persuasive. The power presented by the duke in "My Last Duchess" is positional and coercive.

Positional power comes from the outside authority a person is granted because of their status position in a hierarchy. The duke ranks above the duchess because he is the duke, the powerful, patriarchal male in the relationship. He knows that everyone in the household is under his authority and expected to obey him. It doesn't matter if he is pleasant or if his commands are rational or humane or if he is a jerk and a despot: his title and gender have given him power. In contrast to him, the other men mentioned in the poem use their personal power—their personalities—to exercise a soft, relational power over the duchess by pleasing her.

The duke has the authority to use coercive power over the duchess—he can give orders and her smiles can fade. He can order her killed, and he does. He expects her to obey him because of what he can do to her punitively. He seems to make no effort to use persuasive power as do the other males in the poem. They compliment her, give her a cherry bough, or walk her around on a mule: they make themselves pleasant and so persuade her to like them, smile at them, and interact with them in a positive way. The duke does not seem to feel he needs to make any effort with his wife (if he did so, he never expresses this). His unrealistic expectation is that she adore and only pay attention to him because of his positional and coercive power.

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In "My Last Duchess," the power the Duke exercises over his late wife is presented as, essentially, absolute. He controlled all aspects of her existence, including who else was allowed to interact with her. The portrait that hangs on the wall exists because the Duke commanded Fra Pandolf to "sit and look at her," not because she wanted to be represented in this way. And, now that she is dead, her picture remains on his wall, whether she wishes it to be there or not, to be seen only by those whom the Duke deems worthy ("none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I".)

Everything about how the Duke describes his duchess is controlling: he determined that she was too easily pleased, too easily impressed, and too fond of everyone. The Duke's response to this was to feel outrage that his "gift" of his ancient name was not ranked by her above the gifts of others. The Duke refused to be put in a position of lesser power: he chose "never to stoop."

We can see in the language used that he exerted his power over the situation to punish his Duchess through the giving of "commands" and that even now that her smiles have "stopped," he does not feel any remorse. He does not seem to realize that his behavior towards his wife was reprehensible and will be heard as such by the Count's servant.

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"My Last Duchess" is about the power that the speaker, a Duke, had and still has over his dead wife, the eponymous Duchess.

The Duke keeps a painting of the Duchess behind a curtain which "none puts by" but him. In this way, the Duke has power over the Duchess in that he controls who now sees her and what stories people hear about her. He implies to his guest that the "glance" in the Duchess's expression, and the "spot / Of joy in the Duchess's cheek" are signals of her infidelity. The Duchess, of course, has no opportunity to defend herself or to put forward her own story.

Later in the poem, the Duke boasts that he "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." The implication here is that the Duke, jealous of the Duchess's smiles and assuming that they were a sign of her infidelity, "stopped" them by taking her life. Thus, he had then the power to end her life, and he has now the power to control how, or if, she is remembered.

At the end of the poem, the speaker points to a bronze statue of Neptune "taming a sea-horse." This statue can be read as a symbol of the Duke's power over the Duchess. The Duke is represented by Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, and the Duchess is represented by the sea-horse. The difference in size between the god and the sea-horse represents the imbalance of power in their relationship. And the fact that Neptune is "taming" the sea-horse implies that this is what the Duke, at least from his perspective, used his power to do. He tamed the Duchess who he thought too wild and too independent.

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