What themes are illuminated by the characters?

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The main character in "My Last Duchess" is the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara. He is a jealous, gloating psychopath who boasts to his visitor that he "gave commands" to stop his wife's flirtatious smiles. The Duke seems pleased that he has control over the Duchess now that she is dead. He is the one, after all, who covers and uncovers her portrait as and when he sees fit, and he is the one who decides what story about her his visitors hear.

While the Duchess was alive, the Duke didn't seem to have much control over her, and she would, at least as far as he could tell, flirt with other men. The Duke refused to even speak to his wife about his concerns, because even to do so would have been, he says, "some stooping," and he chose "never to stoop."

The main theme that emerges from Browning's presentation of the Duke and of his relationship with his wife, the Duchess, is the theme of gender inequality in the nineteenth century. The Duke seems to exercise all of the power, and he takes the life of his wife for nothing more than smiling at other men just the same as she smiled at him. She, on the other hand, is completely powerless. One symbol of this unequal power dynamic is the curtain which covers the portrait of the Duchess. The fact that he now has power to determine who sees her, and how they see her, indicates that he essentially has the power to determine how she is remembered, or if she is remembered at all.

The second key symbol which demonstrates this theme of gender inequality is the statue that the Duke points out to his guest at the end of the poem. The statue depicts "Neptune . . . Taming a sea-horse," which symbolizes the Duke taming the Duchess. Compared to the Duchess, represented by a small sea-horse, the Duke is a god, like Neptune.

This grossly unequal power dynamic is a reflection of the respective positions of men and women in Victorian England. When a woman married a man, for example, all of her legal rights, as well as all of her property, were transferred to the husband. A husband and wife were considered one body, represented by the husband.

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One of the themes of the story is man's inhumanity to woman. And this theme is reflected in the attitude of the upper-classes towards marriage. High-born personages like the Duke don't regard marriage as having anything to do with love; it's all about forging strategic political alliances with other powerful families. As the established convention regards marriage as nothing more than a glorified business transaction, women such as the unfortunate Duchess are treated as chattels, property to be bought and sold by men.

Among other things, this means that, beneath the outward show of exaggerated courtesy shown towards women in this society, they are not truly respected. That being the case, it's no surprise that the Duke should feel no compunction whatsoever in resorting to murdering his wife when he suspects her of infidelity. Browning appears to be making a wider point here about the barbarism of human nature lurking not far beneath the surface, even in the ostensibly refined, civilized surface of Italian aristocratic life.

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One theme illuminated by the characters in "My Last Duchess" is the misuse of patriarchal power.

The Duke has wealth and position, and as a husband, a great deal of power over his young wife, the now dead duchess. He abuses his power by wanting her to direct one hundred percent of her affection and attention to him alone, and finally for killing her when she does not comply with his demands.

The late duchess's character illuminates her innocence and kindness:

she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West ...

The duke's character illustrates his ruthless abuse of power:

I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.

The duke's character also reveals the theme of insecurity. The duke becomes jealous of the very minor attentions that the duchess pays to other men. One has to wonder why he is so worried about her blushing at the words of a painter or smiling at a servant. The poem implies that people, especially people with power, need to discern what they can safely overlook and to examine their own hearts and minds instead of blaming others for their demons.

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While out walking, Browning made the comment to Hiram Corson, after the latter had published an introductory study of Browning's poetry, stating that what he had in mind when he wrote "gave orders" in "My Last Duchess" was the orders were for her murder [as an afterthought he also added an alternative for her to be "shut up in a convent"]. The Duke illustrates that one of Browning's themes in writing this dramatic monologue is that of Insolence. It is the tyrannical Duke's insolence that allows him to think that a viable solution to personal dissatisfaction with the whims of a young bride is murder. Insolence can be understood as haughty, arrogant, disdainful, contemptuous disrespect of personhood. Murder is the ultimate manifestation of disrespect of personhood.

Browning drew the inspiration for his poem from the Renaissance account of the Italian Duke Alfonso II d'Este of the Duchy of Ferrara, attested to by the one word epigram at the head of the poem: "Ferrara." In 1558 the 25-year-old Alfonso married the 14-year-old Lucrezia, the poorly educated young daughter the Midici family, then nouveau riche in comparison to the d'Estes of Ferrara. A poorly educated, fourteen year old bride unused to ancient tradition and manners of behavior would--upon suddenly finding herself the object of attention, esteem, wealth, and authority--be very likely to display giddy, light-hearted and universally delighted deportment.

Since the Ferrara marriage tale inspired Browning's poem--including the similar mysterious deaths of Lucrezia and the first duchess--it is logical to conclude that this is the true description of the Duke's bride whose blush of delight was awakened by trivialities as readily as by his passions. Through the character of the painted last Duchess, Browning presents the theme of Young Marriage, a practice popular in early epochs but fallen out of practice before the Victorian period, yet still envisioned in the wishful romanticality of the morally strict era.

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