Themes and Meanings
“My Last Duchess” shows the corrupt power of a domestic tyrant. Browning uses this theme again in his longest poem, The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), in which the sadistic Count Guido kills his wife after falsely accusing her of adultery.
Spoken monologues often reveal more to the listener (and reader) than the speaker intends, but this arrogant aristocrat has no hesitation. The Duke of Ferrara obviously considers himself superior to others and above laws and morality. He clearly states that he gave the commands that stopped his wife’s smiles altogether. After all, he tells the agent, “she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” The duke was irritated by such behavior and had it eliminated. He uses his power to get others to do his will, including, presumably, the agent. As he had others eliminate his wife, and as he had a painter and a sculptor create objects of art to his specifications, he assumes that the agent will provide the kind of duchess he wants. He seems unconcerned about any hesitations a potential second wife might have about how his first marriage ended. He appears confident his demands will be met, both the ample dowry and the subservient wife.
The jealousy and possessiveness that seem to accompany the duke’s assertion of power suggest that he will be equally suspicious of any living wife, and indeed the portrait of his last duchess is more satisfactory to him than was the duchess herself. He can open or close the curtain as he pleases; he can exert complete control.
Browning’s genius created a character whose own words condemn him and show him as a ruthless, corrupt man who misuses his power. What makes the Duke of Ferrara especially horrifying is that he feels no repentance and no need for repentance. There have been no checks on his abuses of power thus far, and there is nothing to suggest that he will not continue his egotistical and tyrannical ways.
The speaker's overbearing pride—or in moral terms, his hubris—is incorporated into the very situation of Browning's monologue. In it, the Duke addresses an inferior, the emissary of a nobleman ("the Count, your master") whose daughter he intends to make his second wife. There are financial negotiations at stake—the matter of a dowry that the Duke intends to collect from the Count. In fact, the Duke seems in the process of acquiring in the next Duchess an "object," to use his own word. But the actual amount of money is not the real issue. The Duke suggests that among noblemen, whose behaviors are governed by "just pretense," no reasonable monetary request would be denied; the negotiations, then, are in one sense a mere formality. In a second sense, however, money functions symbolically, both in the Duke's mind and for the reader trying to understand the Duke's motives. In his world, after all, people can be bought and sold, and the terms of their existence can determined by those like the Duke who possess all the power in a hierarchical society. Thus, the negotiations are really about the conditions under which the Count's daughter will become the Duke's wife—conditions that amount to, the Duke suggests, absolute submission to his pride.
To stress this point, the Duke describes the fate of his former wife, his "last duchess." It is here that we see the juxtaposition of the Duke's corrupt pride and the Duchess' pureness. Though he describes her affronts to his arrogant nature, she comes across as a warm and lively woman, one loved by everybody for her ability to enjoy life. Yet her pleasant demeanor evoked jealousy in the Duke: she was "too soon made glad, / too easily impressed: she liked whate'er / she looked on, and her looks went everywhere." He found it insulting that she equated his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" with "anybody's gift." Clinging to his pride, however, he considered it a form of "trifling" to display his resentment or to discuss his...
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