To whom is the Duke speaking in "My Last Duchess"?

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This poem is a compelling character portrayal reflecting the objectification of women in this historical context. In the poem, the speaker spends a great deal of time showing a guest a portrait of his former wife, asking this guest to sit while he explains the lady's demeanor captured in the...

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This poem is a compelling character portrayal reflecting the objectification of women in this historical context. In the poem, the speaker spends a great deal of time showing a guest a portrait of his former wife, asking this guest to sit while he explains the lady's demeanor captured in the portrait. Instead of praising her, he condemns his now deceased wife for being too happy. She was equally happy with a gift from him, a sunset, or a branch of cherries. Interestingly, this unparalleled joy is not valued by the speaker; it is clear that he needed to feel that he was special to her—that he made her happier than anyone or anything else. And when she failed to deliver, there is evidence that he had her killed:

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.

The "commands" from the speaker immediately precede the fact that her smiles stopped, and now he's in the position of needing a new wife. It seems that the inability of the wife to meet the egotistical needs of her husband's sense of self-importance led to her death.

So to whom is the duke casually confessing these acts to—and with no sense of remorse? Shockingly, the guest is an emissary of his next bride's father. The duke feels that he has nothing to hide in his previous marriage and likely wants to be clear in this marital arrangement that his needs include being made to feel special and important—and his next bride, whose father awaits them downstairs, needs to deliver.

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The Duke is speaking to an emissary who's been sent by a Count, whose daughter the Duke hopes to marry. In time-honored fashion, a proposed aristocratic marriage is being arranged by way of a go-between, whose job it is to deal with both parties in finalizing the details of the forthcoming nuptials.

As a previous Educator has rightly noted, it's only toward the end of the poem that we find out the identity of the Duke's interlocutor. Up until that moment, it was as if the Duke had been speaking aloud. But now that we know that he's been divulging his true feelings about his late wife to someone else, we find his comments all the more disturbing. The Duke has such a strong sense of entitlement and is so certain that his murderous actions were justified that he feels no compunction whatsoever in telling someone that he gave orders to "silence" the late duchess.

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When the Duke refers to "The Count your master," this tells us that he is actually speaking to an emissary of a count: a representative that the Count has sent to broker the marriage of his daughter to the Duke, as the Duke also refers to the Count's "fair daughter's self," who he says is his "object."

However, it also seems likely that the Duke is sending a warning to the Count, and even perhaps the count's daughter. He has explained that he "choose[s] / Never to stoop." To him, it would be "stooping" to explain to his wife that she should value him and his very old family name above any and all other gifts she might receive. In his mind, she ought to know this, feel this, already. What frustrated him about his last duchess was her habit of being "Too easily impressed; she like whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere." She seemed as grateful for the sunset or some fruit as she was for the Duke's love, and he would not lower himself (what he calls stooping) by explaining to her why she should appreciate him the most. Rather than "stoop," he seems to have had her killed. He says, "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." Now, it appears that he is warning the Count and the Count's daughter, his potential future bride, via the Count's emissary, about how he expects to be treated by his wife and what he will and will not consider acceptable behavior. In other words, she will have to act as though the Duke is the best thing that's ever happened to her once they marry, or he might just get rid of her as he did the last duchess.

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Part of the mastery of Browning's art in this poem is that we are only told who the audience of the Duke's dramatic monologue is at the end of the poem, after he has seemingly quite cheerfully narrated how he had his "last Duchess" disposed off because of how, in his perception, she bestowed attention of others. Thus, having established the immense pride and cruelty of the Duke, it is highly ironic that we discover in the last few lines that the silent listener is a representative from a Count whose Duke the daughter is negotiating to marry:

The Count your master's known munificience

Is ample warrant that no just pretense

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

As starting, is my object.

Now, when we think about this, this is either incredibly ironic or/and it is incredibly chilling. Either we think that the Duke has no awareness of what the story of his last Duchess is doing to the listener, or, he is deliberately sending a message to the Count about the kind of behaviour he expects from a wife and the kind of response he can expect if his daughter does not behave accordingly.

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