How is power depicted in "My Last Duchess"?

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In "My Last Duchess," the power held by the Duke over his late wife is presented as absolute. His control of her is so extreme that even though she has died, he controls who may view her painting. He also describes that through his "commands" alone, he was able to put an end to her smiles and, by implication, her life.

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Power can be positional, personal, coercive, or persuasive. The power presented by the duke in "My Last Duchess" is positional and coercive.

Positional power comes from the outside authority a person is granted because of their status position in a hierarchy. The duke ranks above the duchess because he is the duke, the powerful, patriarchal male in the relationship. He knows that everyone in the household is under his authority and expected to obey him. It doesn't matter if he is pleasant or if his commands are rational or humane or if he is a jerk and a despot: his title and gender have given him power. In contrast to him, the other men mentioned in the poem use their personal power—their personalities—to exercise a soft, relational power over the duchess by pleasing her.

The duke has the authority to use coercive power over the duchess—he can give orders and her smiles can fade. He can order her killed, and he does. He expects her to obey him because of what he can do to her punitively. He seems to make no effort to use persuasive power as do the other males in the poem. They compliment her, give her a cherry bough, or walk her around on a mule: they make themselves pleasant and so persuade her to like them, smile at them, and interact with them in a positive way. The duke does not seem to feel he needs to make any effort with his wife (if he did so, he never expresses this). His unrealistic expectation is that she adore and only pay attention to him because of his positional and coercive power.

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In "My Last Duchess," the power the Duke exercises over his late wife is presented as, essentially, absolute. He controlled all aspects of her existence, including who else was allowed to interact with her. The portrait that hangs on the wall exists because the Duke commanded Fra Pandolf to "sit and look at her," not because she wanted to be represented in this way. And, now that she is dead, her picture remains on his wall, whether she wishes it to be there or not, to be seen only by those whom the Duke deems worthy ("none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I".)

Everything about how the Duke describes his duchess is controlling: he determined that she was too easily pleased, too easily impressed, and too fond of everyone. The Duke's response to this was to feel outrage that his "gift" of his ancient name was not ranked by her above the gifts of others. The Duke refused to be put in a position of lesser power: he chose "never to stoop."

We can see in the language used that he exerted his power over the situation to punish his Duchess through the giving of "commands" and that even now that her smiles have "stopped," he does not feel any remorse. He does not seem to realize that his behavior towards his wife was reprehensible and will be heard as such by the Count's servant.

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"My Last Duchess" is about the power that the speaker, a Duke, had and still has over his dead wife, the eponymous Duchess.

The Duke keeps a painting of the Duchess behind a curtain which "none puts by" but him. In this way, the Duke has power over the Duchess in that he controls who now sees her and what stories people hear about her. He implies to his guest that the "glance" in the Duchess's expression, and the "spot / Of joy in the Duchess's cheek" are signals of her infidelity. The Duchess, of course, has no opportunity to defend herself or to put forward her own story.

Later in the poem, the Duke boasts that he "gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." The implication here is that the Duke, jealous of the Duchess's smiles and assuming that they were a sign of her infidelity, "stopped" them by taking her life. Thus, he had then the power to end her life, and he has now the power to control how, or if, she is remembered.

At the end of the poem, the speaker points to a bronze statue of Neptune "taming a sea-horse." This statue can be read as a symbol of the Duke's power over the Duchess. The Duke is represented by Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, and the Duchess is represented by the sea-horse. The difference in size between the god and the sea-horse represents the imbalance of power in their relationship. And the fact that Neptune is "taming" the sea-horse implies that this is what the Duke, at least from his perspective, used his power to do. He tamed the Duchess who he thought too wild and too independent.

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How is power used in "My Last Duchess?" 

This dramatic monologue is especially significant among Browning's works, because it seems to be forward-looking in its understanding of the male-female dynamic of Browning's own time (and earlier, as the setting of the poem indicates). The Duke at first is celebrating the apparent happiness he brought to his Duchess, although he qualifies it by admitting other things made her happy also:

....'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot of joy

Into the Duchess' cheek....

As the Duke continues to speak, he reveals the jealousy of a husband who wants to monopolize the wife's attention; in other words, he doubts the complete power he wishes to have over her:

....She thanked me,—good! but thanked

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred years old name

With anybody's gift.

The "ideal" relationship based on dominance, which the Duke has desired, has deteriorated in his telling of the history of his marriage:

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.

This is the disillusionment of a man who had assumed his power over a woman to have been automatic, but when he has realized it's not so, he then makes it explicit: he "gives commands," and so ruins even the artificial joy that seemingly existed before. That it was all the same to him as anything else is indicated by the final lines, in which he evidently regards the painting of the Duchess (and the Duchess herself) as no more significant than a mythological figure:

Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

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How is power used in "My Last Duchess?" 

Duke Ferrara, the speaker in Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess," wields absolute power within his sphere of influence. The poem gives insight into his power over artists and their work, over his employees, over his wife, and over the Count and his representative. The Duke commissioned artists to create for him: Fra Pandolf to paint a portrait of his last Duchess and Claus of Innsbruck to cast a statue in bronze of Neptune taming a seahorse. The Duke displays a derisive tone toward Fra Pandolf when he speculates how Fra Pandolf was able to call "that spot of joy into the Duchess' cheek." He was evidently satisfied with the painting, though, because he shows it off to the person he is speaking to in the poem, namely the agent from a Count who is there to negotiate the dowry for the Duke's next Duchess. The Duke keeps the painting behind a curtain and only he draws it open for visitors to view the painting; thus he exercises full power over the work of the artist.

As the owner of a large estate, the Duke no doubt employs many servants on the grounds and in the house. One of them happened to break off a "bough of cherries" in the orchard, presenting it to the Duchess. For that Ferrara calls him "some officious fool," and the reader might wonder whether that servant was reprimanded for his effrontery. 

The Duke's power over his Duchess was supreme. He believed that to instruct her about what pleased and displeased him would lessen his power; it would be "stooping." Rather than lose any of his power, he "gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." The reader assumes the Duke had the Duchess killed, usurping complete control over her life.

Finally, the Duke holds power over the agent to whom he is speaking. Apparently the agent, appalled at hearing the fate of the former Duchess, wants to make a getaway. The Duke stops him, saying, "Nay, we'll go together down, sir." He also implies that he will hold the power in the negotiations for the dowry, saying, "No just pretense of mine for dowry will be disallowed." 

Ferrara is a man who is used to having his own way and displaying great power over everyone he comes in contact with.

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