Robert Browning’s poem “The Last Duchess” presents a portrait of a man who is a connoisseur of art. The Duke is the narrator of the poem as well as its only speaking character.
On this day in the poem, the Duke has commandeered one of the servants of a visiting guest to come and look at the picture of his “dead” wife. Basically, the Duke is talking aloud to himself through a dramatic monologue.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now…
The picture by a famous painter of the day is a full length portrait. More importantly, only a few are allowed to look at the picture because of the lady’s countenance that displeases the Duke. The poor lady has a blush on her cheeks which the Duke calls her “spot of joy.”
The artist tried to explain the color by the warmth of the day, the extra cloak that she wore, and the inaccuracy of the paint. None of these satisfied the Duke.
The Duke lists the reasons for his displeasure in his former wife:
- She had a big heart
- She was too easily impressed
- She thanked the Duke for his presents to her in the same way she would thank anyone
- She did not appreciate the aristocratic name that the Duke gave to her
- She smiled at the Duke and at other men as well
- He ordered her to stop and she did.
Now she is here no more. Of course, all of these are ridiculous, pointing up the madness of the Duke.
He did not have the control over his last duchess that he required. The Duke bows for no one. Obviously, the Duke is an eccentric egomaniac. His speech is less about his wife and more about his self-importance. Browning emphasizes his controlling, jealous, and arrogant personality without ever actually mentioning any of these traits.
Toward the end of the poem, the reader learns that the servant belongs to a Count who is there to discuss his beautiful daughter’s marriage to the Duke. Now that the servant knows the truth of the Duke’s obsessiveness, it would behoove him to recommend that the daughter not become the next Last Duchess. No one in his right mind would want his child to live with and try to please this Duke.
The answer to this question really depends on how you feel about your daughter and how well written the pre-nuptial agreement is.
The important lines from the poem are:
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.
These are normally read to indicate jealousy and possessiveness. They may also signal that the Duke had his wife murdered. Of course, as we see it from the Duke's point of view, there is also the possibility that the Duchess was an adulterous, in which case his reactions would have had some justification within an Italian Renaissance concept of honor.
As you think through this question, it's important to remember that marriage among nobles in the period in which the poem was set was not generally based on romantic love but was a form of economic alliance.