In "My Last Duchess," why is this "name" so important to the Duke?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From the question, the name in “The Last Duchess” by Robert Browning might apply to the name that the duke gives to his last wife or his family’s illustrious nine hundred year old name.  This answer will look at both names. 

The Last Duchess

The poem concerns an arrogant and probably insane duke who takes a visitor into his private gallery to show the man  the picture of his “late” wife.  Browning employs a dramatic monologue which is a poem that addresses a silent listener. 

The duke ascribes this title “The Last Duchess”  to  his  former wife because  he has done something nefarious to his wife. He was displeased with her behavior.  What had she done?

  • The painter had shown a blush on her cheeks in the picture
  • Her heart was too easily made happy and impressed
  • She looked at everyone
  • When someone did something for her, she gave an approving look or word
  • She gave the same smile to others that she gave to the duke

The duke admits that he made her smiling stop.

Obviously, the duke is not in his right mind. His jealousy and insensitivity establish that the duchess’s every move was scrutinized by the duke and found to be lacking.  He ordered her put to silence.

His Family Name

When the duchess does not outwardly thank the duke for his bestowing his family name on her through their marriage, this was a major error on her part.  Exceptionally prideful of his name, the duke felt that she disrespected his name by not showing more gratitude for his gift through their marriage.  During this period in history, the aristocratic name was all powerful.  In the duke’s world, he was in charge of everything including the behavior of his wife.

She thanked men---good! but thanked

I know not how—as is she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody’s gift.  

As a punishment for the duchess's assault on his name, he banishes her beautiful picture to be seen only by the duke and invited guests.  In addition, he implies that he has stopped her  forever when he commanded that all smiles stop; and they did.  He does not have to defend his  position because he is all powerful!

In the end of the poem, the reader learns why the duke took the ambassador to see the portrait.  The duke wants to court and marry the daughter of another aristocrat. His vanity is apparent when he points out a statue of Neptune which was especially made for him by a famous sculptor. 

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this disturbing dramatic monologue it is clear that the reader is only presented with the thoughts and words of the Duke, and, in addition, to make it more fascinating, the reader is very aware that these words are delivered to a specific audience and therefore the Duke has a specific purpose in choosing to reveal what he does reveal. The importance of the audience is only made clear at the end of the poem, when it is shown that the audience is a servant of another lord who is trying to marry his daughter to the Duke. This is something that casts the Duke's dramatic monologue into sharp relief, for it either reveals him to be a sadistic murderer who is giving a very clear warning message to this servant about how his future wife should behave, or he is a man so obsessed with his own importance and power that he doesn't even consider what he did to be a crime and mentions it in passing. Either way, the "name" that the Duke refers to links to his own importance, as the following quote explores:

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

The Duke clearly places great value in his "nine-hundred-years-old name" and feels that this is something his wife should have respected more. It is clear that the "name" of the Duke is integral to his identity and importance, and by feeling that his wife is slighting his "name" he is clearly annoyed, which leads to the smiles of the Duchess being prematurely ended. The name of the Duke therefore is part of his self-importance that he expresses so stridently in this poem.