Study Guide

My Last Duchess Language and Communication

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Language and Communication

never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned . . .
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there (6-9, 11-12)

There are several different kinds of communication happening here. The Duke is telling the servant a story about the portrait of the Duchess. But he’s also picking up on the nonverbal cues that tell him what question the servant wants to ask. (Although he may be projecting that desire onto the servant; we can’t be sure, because we don’t get any information in the poem about how the servant is actually reacting.) The Duke also inadvertently implies that he’s used to people being afraid of him – they want to ask about the portrait, but they don’t dare.

all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. (29-31)

The Duke’s big problem with the Duchess is that the way she communicates with people isn’t nuanced enough. She gives the same friendly, flirty reaction to everyone and everything.

Even had you skill
In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one (35-37)

The Duke claims that he can’t talk to the Duchess about her behavior because he’s not a good enough speaker to really make his feelings clear to her. But we can tell this is just an excuse, because the language he uses to describe the situation to the Count’s servant is quite skillful.

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. (45-46)

Although the Duke doesn’t want to communicate with the Duchess directly about her indiscriminate kindness, he sets up an alternate, indirect line of communication in order to bring about her murder. This other path of communication depends on an underling who will hear and carry out the Duke’s orders. The implied murder of the Duchess turns the Duke’s commands into performative language.

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