My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning
My Last Duchess Theme of Language and Communication
In "My Last Duchess," choices about what to communicate and what to withhold are the means by which power is wielded. The Duke sees communicating openly and honestly with someone about the problems you have with their behavior as impossible because it would compromise his authority. It’s also possible to hint at his power by intentionally letting stories of the past exploits slip to a new listener. However, because language is full of subtlety, the Duke might accidentally communicate more than he meant to about his own psychosis.
Questions About Language and Communication
- The Duke claims that he doesn’t have "skill in speech" to make his "will clear" to the Duchess. Is he right? Does he display any evidence of rhetorical skill in the poem itself? If so, then why couldn’t he communicate with the Duchess?
- Why does the Duke think that it would be "stooping" to communicate his thoughts and feelings to the Duchess? Why doesn’t telling the story to his listener count as "stooping," too? What makes retelling the story to a third party different?
- What is the Duke really hoping to communicate by telling the story of his "last Duchess" to the Count’s servant? Who is meant to receive the message?
- What does the Duke communicate about himself unintentionally by retelling the story of his murder of the Duchess? How do these unintended meanings slip through the language of the poem?
Chew on This
The Duke is only able to describe his maniacal feelings to someone who is not the object of those feelings.