My Last Duchess Questions and Answers
by Robert Browning

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What kind of person is the Duke in the poem "My Last Duchess"? 

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Duke is incredibly proud and totally callous. He hoards the painting of his last wife, and he allows "none [to] put by / The curtain" covering her portrait but himself because he wants to control who can see her happy blush. He admits that it angered him that, during her lifetime, she was "too soon made glad." Any thing, no matter how small or insignificant, would produce "that spot of joy" on her cheeks: a beautiful sunset, a bough of cherries from the orchard, a pretty mule. They were all on par with his "favour at her breast," and he could not stand it. She was grateful to everyone for everything and she thanked people, he says,

[...] as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.

The Duke could not bear the idea that his duchess did not treasure him and his gifts more than anyone else. It angered him that she was grateful for all, that she didn't count herself incredibly lucky as a result of his love alone. He admits that he might have been able to explain this to her, but this would require "some stooping," he says, "and I choose / Never to stoop." He refused to lower himself to explain that she ought to smile more for him than anyone else, be more grateful for his gifts than anyone else's. It would have been humiliating to have to explain such a thing. Instead, he "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." It seems that he must have given an order to have her killed. This way, he gets what he wants: he can pick and choose who gets to see her blushing smile, keeping her all to himself if he desires it—something he could not do while she was alive. We see, then, how proud he is as well as how unfeeling.

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The entire poem is geared toward a “portrait” of the Duke’s inhumanity and greed.  The casual remark  “I gave commands and all smiles stopped together” is a sinister hint as to his power and malice, and his hypocritical remark about the new candidate’s dowry is a good indication of his greed.  The fact that he treats human beings as owned objects is hidden even in his first remark : “That’s my last duchess painted on the wall.”  This "ownership" attitude is reiterated in the last image in the poem “ Notice Neptune.. which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.”  The reader gets the same impression of the Duke as does the ambassador, who undoubtedly takes back a negative report to his employer.  The “kind of person” the Duke displays unconsciously in his exchanges with the ambassador gives a double meaning to the word “last,” since the Duke is very unlikely to ever get a good recommendation and therefore another Duchess.

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