How is power used in "My Last Duchess?" 

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This dramatic monologue is especially significant among Browning's works, because it seems to be forward-looking in its understanding of the male-female dynamic of Browning's own time (and earlier, as the setting of the poem indicates). The Duke at first is celebrating the apparent happiness he brought to his Duchess, although...

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This dramatic monologue is especially significant among Browning's works, because it seems to be forward-looking in its understanding of the male-female dynamic of Browning's own time (and earlier, as the setting of the poem indicates). The Duke at first is celebrating the apparent happiness he brought to his Duchess, although he qualifies it by admitting other things made her happy also:

....'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot of joy

Into the Duchess' cheek....

As the Duke continues to speak, he reveals the jealousy of a husband who wants to monopolize the wife's attention; in other words, he doubts the complete power he wishes to have over her:

....She thanked me,—good! but thanked

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred years old name

With anybody's gift.

The "ideal" relationship based on dominance, which the Duke has desired, has deteriorated in his telling of the history of his marriage:

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.

This is the disillusionment of a man who had assumed his power over a woman to have been automatic, but when he has realized it's not so, he then makes it explicit: he "gives commands," and so ruins even the artificial joy that seemingly existed before. That it was all the same to him as anything else is indicated by the final lines, in which he evidently regards the painting of the Duchess (and the Duchess herself) as no more significant than a mythological figure:

Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

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Duke Ferrara, the speaker in Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess," wields absolute power within his sphere of influence. The poem gives insight into his power over artists and their work, over his employees, over his wife, and over the Count and his representative. The Duke commissioned artists to create for him: Fra Pandolf to paint a portrait of his last Duchess and Claus of Innsbruck to cast a statue in bronze of Neptune taming a seahorse. The Duke displays a derisive tone toward Fra Pandolf when he speculates how Fra Pandolf was able to call "that spot of joy into the Duchess' cheek." He was evidently satisfied with the painting, though, because he shows it off to the person he is speaking to in the poem, namely the agent from a Count who is there to negotiate the dowry for the Duke's next Duchess. The Duke keeps the painting behind a curtain and only he draws it open for visitors to view the painting; thus he exercises full power over the work of the artist.

As the owner of a large estate, the Duke no doubt employs many servants on the grounds and in the house. One of them happened to break off a "bough of cherries" in the orchard, presenting it to the Duchess. For that Ferrara calls him "some officious fool," and the reader might wonder whether that servant was reprimanded for his effrontery. 

The Duke's power over his Duchess was supreme. He believed that to instruct her about what pleased and displeased him would lessen his power; it would be "stooping." Rather than lose any of his power, he "gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." The reader assumes the Duke had the Duchess killed, usurping complete control over her life.

Finally, the Duke holds power over the agent to whom he is speaking. Apparently the agent, appalled at hearing the fate of the former Duchess, wants to make a getaway. The Duke stops him, saying, "Nay, we'll go together down, sir." He also implies that he will hold the power in the negotiations for the dowry, saying, "No just pretense of mine for dowry will be disallowed." 

Ferrara is a man who is used to having his own way and displaying great power over everyone he comes in contact with.

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