What happened to the duchess in Browning's "My Last Duchess"?

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In this poem, the duke addresses the servant of a man, a "Count," who has come to discuss the terms of a wedding to take place between the duke and the Count's daughter.

The duke refers to the Count as "your master," as he is the employer of his auditor. He also speaks of the Count's "fair daughter's self" and her dowry, the sum generally paid by a wife's family to the new husband.

In order for the duke to be searching for a new duchess, his last duchess must no longer be living. The duke is, evidently, a man who likes to be in control and who likes to have his pride gratified by others. He shows off the portrait of his "last Duchess" alongside other pieces of art he owns, as though she is just another object in his collection. He always wanted to be able to direct to whom and when she ought to smile and blush, and now he can, because he has hidden her portrait behind a curtain which "none puts by [...] but [him]." In other words, no one else is allowed to draw the curtain and see her face, her beauty, and her blush unless he allows them to. He has finally gained the control over her that he long wanted but would not "stoop" to explain to her. He wanted her to value his gift of an ancient name over all the other much less valuable gifts she received.

Therefore, it makes sense that when the duke mysteriously says that he "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." Readers can assume that he had her killed so that he could start again with a new wife, which is what he's doing now. In the next line, he says, "There she stands / As if alive." Thus, we know that she is dead, and he seems to be responsible for it.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on April 16, 2020
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It isn't explicitly spelled out, but we can reasonably infer that the duchess was killed on the orders of her husband. As he explains to the Count's emissary in chilling, matter-of-fact language, he gave commands, and then all the Duchess's smiles stopped.

From the rest of the poem we gather the rationale behind the Duke's murderous actions. Apparently, the Duchess used to smile an awful lot; in fact, she smiled at just about everyone with whom she came into contact. And the Duke hated this. He also hated the fact that the Duchess had kind words for everyone she met and was immensely thankful for the slightest courtesy or gift. The Duke believed this somehow undermined his ancient title, as the Duchess, in giving her thanks to all and sundry, was effectively placing her noble husband on the same level as the most humble court functionary.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 29, 2019
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In this poem, the only clue we have to guide us as to what happened to the first duchess is one little tiny phrase.  And even that isn't super specific; we are left to infer, or fill in the holes by guessing.  If you look closely at the text of the poem, there is a representative of a second wife who has come to discuss the terms with the Duke, and the Duke shows the representative the picture of his first wife.  He tells the guy that she was super easily pleased, smiling and laughing at everything, which made him mad, because she was supposed to only smile for him, and show him the respect that his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name".  After mentioning his anger at her supposed disrespect of him, he throws in this line, which is our clue:  "I gave commands;   Then all smiles stopped together."  So, he "gave commands" and she stopped smiling forever.  This hints that he told someone to kill her.  He commanded someone under his power to murder her; that way she could never smile at anyone ever again.  Her portait only can smile, and he has control over who sees it.  It's a rather twisted and evil thing to do, especially because he is telling the new guy about it.  He is basically confessing that he killed his first wife, as a kind of threat to the new one--"you'd better respect me, or you'll end up like her."

I hope that those thoughts help; good luck!

 

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"My Last Duchess" a subtly patterned poem in pentameter that steps into the next line is the dramatic monologue of the Duke Ferrara as he negotiates a new marriage with the emissary for another wealthy family.  As the Duke passes the portrait of the young Duchess who has died, he mentions her with less than regret to his guest that the painter Fra Pandolf made "by design when he portrayed "that picured countenance."  Continuing his narrative, the Duke tells the emissary that Fra Pandolf

chanced to say, 'Her mantle laps/Over my lady's wrist too much,'or, 'Paint/Must never hope to reproduce the faint /Half-flush that dies along her throat.'

As the Duke's monlogue about the painting continues, it becomes apparent that the young woman's "looks went everywhere."  When the Duchess

thanked men--good! but thanked/Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked/My gifft of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody's gift

the Duke is too insulted to excuse her and chooses "Never to stoop.  He gives his wife "commands," but she ignores them.  So, "all smiles stopped together."  And, in the same breath, the duke nonchalantly says, "There she stands/As if alive" and continues his business of a new marriage without missing a beat of the pentameter.  The Duke dismissed her life just as he has dismissed the painting.  And, since this poem's setting is the Renaissance, the assumption by the reader must be that the Duchess has been killed since divorce in Renaissance Italy was nonexistent.

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