My Last Duchess Themes
The main themes in “My Last Duchess” are pride and jealousy, discernment and hierarchy, and art and truth.
- Pride and jealousy: The poem presents a portrait of the duke’s pride and jealousy, which drive him to violent extremes.
- Discernment and hierarchy: The monologue centers around the difference between the duchess’s broad tastes and the duke’s strict discernment.
- Art and truth: The poem explores the ways in which works of art can express contradictory truths.
Pride and Jealousy
“My Last Duchess” centers around a portrait of the eponymous duchess, but the poem itself is a portrait of the jealous duke. Much of the poem’s tension arises from the difference between what the duke intends to convey and what he inadvertently reveals about himself. He tries to characterize the duchess as someone who lavishes attention and praise too broadly, but in doing so, he characterizes himself as a man driven to extremes by possessiveness and pride.
Each episode or vignette the duke tells about the duchess has two sides. When he tells of the duchess’s blush while posing for the painter Fra Pandolf, the duke’s point is that she misinterpreted his comments and was “too soon made glad.” But what he reveals about himself is his own jealousy, his dismay at the fact that “‘twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.”
The duke’s jealousy is such that all manner of events that pleased the duchess would give him a commensurate dose of displeasure. In his view, his “favour at her breast” should have been of greater value than a spectacular sunset, a gifted cherry bough, or a beloved pet mule. What emerges is a psychological portrait of pride and self-importance leading to jealousy and murderous resentment.
And yet there is a degree of self-consciousness in the duke’s account, even as he accidentally reveals the depths of his own pride. Indeed, he admits that the duchess’s broad affections were a “trifling” matter, something he could not “stoop to blame.” But here, his pride comes to the surface again, albeit in a different form. His pride stopped him from articulating his hurt feelings to the duchess, for he felt that raising the issue would be beneath him. As a result, those feelings of jealousy and hurt pride continued to simmer and in fact “grew.” Thus, the duke’s pride—which gave rise to his deep resentment but also quelled his ability to express it—led him to have the duchess killed, as the poem strongly implies. In this sense, the poem can be read as a cautionary tale about the consequences of unchecked pride and jealousy.
Discernment and Hierarchy
“My Last Duchess” centers around the fundamental difference in worldview between the duke of Ferrara and his late wife. Whereas the duchess looked favorably on all manner of things, the duke had—and continues to have—a far more hierarchical perception of the world. To him, there are clear differences in quality between things, differences which one should discern and respect.
In his account, the duke portrays the duchess as someone with an undifferentiated appreciation for the things of the world. She was
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one!
Events of all kinds—compliments, gifts, or vistas—elicited the same approving remark from her. The duke cannot fathom this broad appreciation of reality, and although he calls this difference between him and his late wife a “trifling” matter, it in fact drove him to murder.
The poem strongly suggests that the duke’s strict discernment is related to his aristocratic background and title. The hierarchical sensibility of the aristocracy has political underpinnings; after all, aristocrats depend upon a tiered social structure that places them at the top. This can be seen overtly in the duke’s indignation that the duchess did not single out the duke’s “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” as being particularly worthy of appreciation. For the duke, the value of discernment is tied to his sense of his own value. Stated simply, he...
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feels that some things are better than others and that he, the duke of Ferrara, is one of the best things of all.
Art and Truth
“My Last Duchess” is a work of art that reflects on the nature of art itself. Specifically, the poem is interested in how art can contain layered, contradictory truths. This model of art is reflected in the portrait of the duchess, the bronze Neptune, and the poem itself.
The portrait of the eponymous duchess, which serves as the focal point of the poem’s narrative, contains multiple contradictions. The first is that between life and death. Although the duchess is in fact dead, having been killed by the duke, she figuratively lives on in Fra Pandolf’s lifelike portrait. Although this is a metaphorical sense of life, the duke touches on it repeatedly, noting that she looks “as if she were alive.” Indeed, the duchess lives on in the duke’s delusional imagination. Relatedly, the portrait also contains the contradictory truths that the duchess is controlled and yet uncontrollable. The portrait represents an effort to constrain the duchess, fix her in time, and place her within a literal and figurative frame. And yet the duchess depicted in the portrait is as uncontrollable as she was in life. On her cheek, she bears a blush that symbolizes her responsive and appreciative temperament—the very quality the duke detested and suppressed by killing her.
In the poem’s last lines, the duke turns the emissary’s attention to a bronze sculpture cast for him by Claus of Innsbruck. It depicts Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, “taming a sea-horse.” The duke is pleased by this gift, not realizing that the piece contains a deeper truth that contradicts the surface display of pomp. Indeed, the piece reflects the duke’s own domineering character, his pathological need to “tame” the duchess. There is a keen irony in his cheerful blindness to this contrasting truth.
The poem itself displays a similar dynamic to that of the Innsbruck bronze. On the surface, the poem expresses the duke’s perspective, his attitudes and desires. He is the sole speaker and thus bears the power to shape the narrative in ways that suit his interests. And yet the irony of the poem lies in the horror of his character, which he reveals despite himself. While he wishes to convey a truth about the duchess’s indiscriminate tastes, he reveals instead the truth of his own vanity and brutality. And while his monologue gleams with a bronze-like verbal polish, it tells an ugly tale.