What are some themes in the poem “My Last Duchess”?  What are some symbols in “My Last Duchess”? Does the poem end the way you expected?  How and why? What is the central/primary...

  1. What are some themes in the poem “My Last Duchess”? 
  2. What are some symbols in “My Last Duchess”?
  3. Does the poem end the way you expected?  How and why?
  4. What is the central/primary purpose of the poem? 
  5. What is the role of women in the poem?
  6. How does class, status, and title affect your perception of the characters in the poem?
  7. What impression of the Duchess is the Duke trying to convey to his listener?  What impression of her is actually communicated by his comments?  Use details to support your answer.
  8. Why do you think the Duke (speaker of the poem) mentioned the last painting of Neptune taming a sea-horse?
  9. How would you describe the Duke?
  10. Why would the Duke be considered an antagonist?
Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Robert Browning's dramatic monologue is an especially strong medium for conveying information about the speaker as he reveals his personality through his words and manner of expression in an isolated situation. Here are things that the reader learns from this monologue:

1. Themes - Aristocratic arrogance and egotism; jealousy 
2. Symbols

  • The curtain - the Duke's attempt to hide his faults; also, the young wife was a mere possession and now her painting is his final ownership, for only he can draw the curtain
  • Fra Pandolf - the Duke's pretentiousness is symbolized by his mention of the artist
  • Neptune sculpture - the Duke himself, dominating his wives

3. Poem's ending - (Personal response required) Not a surprising one as the Duke's dominant traits of vanity and pride, as well as his representation of "taming" something are evinced in his wishing to show off this sculpture and drop another artist's name.
4. Primary purpose of the poem -  Browning effectively creates a portrait of the Renaissance gentleman. Robert Langbaum writes, 

we accept the combination of villainy with taste and manners as a phenomenon of the Renaissance and of the old aristocratic order generally.

This is true; as the poem progresses, the reader somehow sympathizes with the Duke in his self-portrait.
5. The role of women - the duchess is a possession. The Duke displays her as one would one's quality line of horses or dogs.
6. Class, status, and its effect on interpretation  - Certainly, the reader sees through the eyes of the agent, who would find the Duke arrogant and prepossessing
7. Impressions of the Duchess - Clearly she was a lady, although the Duke presents her as haughty and dangerous. She is young and wishes to enjoy life, "riding the white mule round the terrace," yet her life seems confining.
8. The Duke's mention of the Neptune sculpture - Along with his "nine-hundred-year-old name," the Duke wishes the agent to be impressed with his good taste and wealth and acquisition of art at a time when that is valued highly (the Renaissance).
9. Description of the Duke - On the one hand, the Duke is obviously egotistical and vain; however, he is a fascinating character, too, as there is such rhythm and detail and finesse in his detailed accounts that one cannot help but feel some admiration for him as a Renaissance gentleman.
10. The Duke as Antagonist - The Duke has obviously gone through some wives, so there have been conflicts. Now, he wishes to marry another nobleman's daughter, yet his proposal is less than conciliatory.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One theme of this poem is that people are not possessions. When one person tries to control another, the result is tragedy.  In this poem, the Duke expresses his displeasure for his deceased wife's habit of displaying the same gratitude for everything; in other words, even small things made her very happy.  He resents that she valued such things as "the dropping of the daylight in the West" or "the bough of cherries" someone brought her as much as she valued his "gift" of a very old family name.  The Duke wanted to control her, but he did not want to have to explain why he was upset because "[he] choose[s] / Never to stoop."  He says that he "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together."  It sounds like he had her killed so that he could start over with another woman who values him as he believes he should be.  This way, he can keep his last duchess behind a curtain that "none puts by / . . . but [him]."  Only he is allowed to look at her portrait or show it to others.  Ultimately, he does control her—but only because she is dead.

This also helps us to understand why the Duke points out the statue of Neptune.  First, he considers the painting of his dead wife to be a piece of art that he possesses, just like any other artwork in his gallery.  Second, the subject of the statue—"Neptune . . . / Taming a sea-horse"—echoes what he values: control.  He is proud of the statue that depicts the Roman god of the sea controlling a wild animal just as he sought to control his last wife.