What is the compromise in "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The word "compromise" never appears in Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess"; however, the idea of compromise is certainly presented--and the Duke refuses to do it.

The poem begins upstairs at the Duke's ancestral home. He is showing an emissary, the man sent by the father of the woman he intends to marry, a portrait of his former wife, the last duchess. The Duke's entire speech (made by a man who claims to have no skill at speaking) is a warning about the kind of woman he does not want to marry.

His last duchess was a lovely woman who cared about other people's feeling and was thankful even for little things, like riding a white donkey on the terrace or a branch from a cherry tree which someone once brought her. The problem was that she was as thankful for them as she was for the things he gave her. He says it was

...as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift. 

The Duke then asks, rhetorically, who would "stoop" low enough to accept such inexcusable behavior. If she had only been willing to treat him as if he were her lord and master, the man who gave her everything, he might have forgiven her; however, "E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop."

Even after he told her the kind of behavior he expected of her, his wife, the last duchess, continued to smile at him in the same way that she smiled at everyone else. Finally the arrogant Duke could no longer bear it.

This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. 

The Duke ends his warning speech to the emissary with a reminder that he is powerful and intends to marry someone he can tame, his point reinforced by a nearby statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse.

The Duke is an arrogant man who chooses never to compromise (stoop), even for love. He killed his last duchess because she would not compromise (obey), and he does not intend to marry another woman who does not understand that he is unbending and she must do all the compromising. 




mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With dramatic irony, the Duke compromises his chances of forming a marriage alliance with the daughter of a wealthy lord as he arrogantly reveals his jealousy, his overbearing pride, his determination to have things his way, and his preoccupation with possessions.

As he and his guest traverse the room, in his ironic misunderstanding of the relationship between the aesthetic and reality, the Duke introduces into the proposed merger of aristocratic name and dowry the portrait of his "last duchess."  This introduction becomes a compromise to the Duke's future marriage opportunity as in mentioning "that spot /Of joy into the Duchess' cheek" formed from "A heart...too soon made glad," he reveals not only her beauty, but his unreasonable jealousy. As he continues, his excessive pride is also bared when the Duke mentions 

'twas all one! My favor at her breast,...
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least....as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anyone's gift.

The very breathlessness of his speech uncovers the Duke's heated emotion and pride. Finally, as he and his guest descend the stairs, he points to a sculpture of Neptune, thus equating his "last duchess" with this bronze work of art, further compromising himself as a man who merely values his acquisitions.