My Last Duchess Characters
The main characters in "My Last Duchess" are the Duke of Ferrara, the Duchess, and the emissary.
- The Duke of Ferrara is a nobleman with a jealous and judgmental cast of mind and an attitude of self-importance.
- The Duchess is depicted in a portrait on the Duke's wall. Her seemingly undiscerning distribution of approval frustrated the Duke.
- The emissary is the addressee who hears the Duke's account of his "last Duchess."
Last Updated on May 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
The Duke of Ferrara
Though readers are given little in the poem to discern the identity of the speaker, they are given a crucial piece of information in the form of a name. Directly beneath the title is the subtitle “FERRARA,” formatted in all capital letters much in the same way as a name in a script meant to indicate that the character is speaking. Because of this word as well as the context of the poem, critics have suggested that the speaker is based on Alfonso II d’Este, a Duke of Ferrara who married his first wife, the daughter of the Duke of Tuscany, when she was only fourteen years old.
In the scene presented in the poem, however, the duke’s marriage with this particular woman has ended, and it is implied that this end was at least somewhat sinister. The duke appears possessive even in the way he speaks to the emissary about the late duchess: he explains that he is the only one who draws back the curtain that covers her portrait. During her lifetime, the duke’s primary grievances with his wife were that she was “too soon made glad” by the flattery of others and did not appear to favor him, which suggests jealousy on his part.
Indeed, jealousy and pride are the primary traits of the duke that are communicated in this poem. The duke was particularly frustrated that the duchess was willing to smile over things that he finds trivial in the same manner that she smiled over his “nine-hundred-years-old-name. The duke expected his young wife to behave as an object meant to praise him; he wanted her to appreciate the family history, prestige, and significance to which her marriage to him connected her.
The duke explains to the courtier that though his wife’s behavior bothered him, he never confronted her about it. His reason for this was that he felt he would be “stooping” to do so. Instead, he “gave commands,” and “all [her] smiles stopped together.” Though the nature of these commands is unclear, his possessive and jealous nature as well as the fact that he reveals that she died only one line later casts considerable suspicion on the duke.
In the context of the poem, the duchess is not much of a character in her own right; she functions largely as an object to demonstrate the extent of the duke’s possessiveness. Despite the duke’s many complaints against her, readers do not learn if the duchess felt the same animosity towards her husband as he felt towards her.
Because the information the reader receives is filtered through the duke, it is also unknown if the duke’s animosity is warranted. Some interpret from this poem that the duke believed her to be unfaithful to him, as a “spot of joy” (likely a blush) appeared on her cheek when Fra Pandolf, the portrait painter, flattered her. The duke explains that it was not “her husband’s presence only” which caused her to blush. However, it is also possible that the duchess was only easily pleased—or, as the duke describes her, “too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed.” Either way, the duke was highly displeased that his wife did not seem to favor him: he explains,
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?
Of course, it is possible that the duchess is only happy and constantly smiling in the duke’s fantasy. For all that the duke seems concerned with her as a person, she may well have been miserable. It is said that the duke “gave commands” and the “smiles stopped altogether.” The meaning of this line and the nature of the duke’s commands are ambiguous. He might simply have made her life miserable, but because the duchess is revealed to be dead, it is also possible that the duke’s had her killed. This interpretation bears resemblance to a rumor regarding the historical woman who some believe inspired the duchess in this poem: Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Duke of Tuscany, who was believed to have been killed by her husband—the Duke of Ferrara.
The emissary, or marriage broker, is the person meeting with the duke on behalf of the duke’s prospective bride’s father, an unnamed count. While the character himself is not described, he is the person to whom the poem is addressed and the vehicle by which the reader perceives the scene. It is through him that the reader imagines the growing sense of discomfort upon hearing the duke’s explanation.
Fra Pandolf is the fictitious painter whose name the duke takes special care to mention as he brags about his duchess’s portrait. He references him twice, implying that the painter is likely of high prestige and renown. However, like most characters referenced in the poem, what Fra Pandolf’s work represents in his own right is far less important than what he represents for the duke. Pandolf is likely object of the duke’s jealousy and paranoia, simply for the fact that he was able to represent the duchess’s “spot of joy,” most likely a blush, in the portrait. The duke completely overlooks the skill of the painter in his ability to capture such a subtle expression and instead finds himself jealous of the artist’s ability to make his wife smile.
Claus of Innsbruck
Claus of Innsbruck is an entirely fictitious metalworker who cast a sculpture of Neptune for the duke. While his character is not significant, his work functions as an important symbol. The statue depicts Neptune “taming a sea-horse.” It is probable that this sculpture is satisfying to the duke because it depicts a scene of domination, similar to the domination he sought over his wife.
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