Study Guide

My Last Duchess Themes

  • Power

    "My Last Duchess" is all about power: the political and social power wielded by the speaker (the Duke) and his attempt to control the domestic sphere (his marriage) in the same way that he rules his lands. He rules with an iron fist. The Duke views everything that he possesses and everyone with whom he interacts as an opportunity to expand his power base. Wives need to be dominated; servants need to understand his authority; and fancy objects in his art gallery display his influence to the world – if he decides to show them. Kindness, joy, and emotion are all threats to his tyrannical power.

    Questions About Power

    1. How does the Duke want the people around him, such as his "last Duchess" and the servant of the Count who listens to her story, to respond to his power? How does he attempt to shape their reactions?
    2. What do the Duke’s brief asides to his listener show us about the way he manages his power? (Think especially of lines 5, 47-48, and 53-54.)
    3. Why does the Duke think that it would be "stooping" to explain to the Duchess why he dislikes her smiling and blushing? In his mind, how would talking to her about these issues compromise his position of power?
    4. What powers does the Duchess have? What aspects of her life – including her husband’s behavior and her own – is she unable to control?

    Chew on This

    The Duke of Ferrara sets himself up to have his power threatened, because he never communicates directly with people about his expectations for their behavior.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. 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?
    3. 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?
    4. 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.

  • Art and Culture

    "My Last Duchess" is a piece of art about a piece of (fictional) art – a poem about a pretend painting. The speaker of the poem, the Duke of Ferrara, is a connoisseur and collector of objets d’art, or art objects, which he displays privately in order to impress people. In this poem, art and culture become tools for demonstrating social status – and ways to reduce unstable elements, like the Duchess herself, to things that can be physically controlled.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why does the Duke have a private art gallery? To whom do you think he usually shows the objects in his collection?
    2. Why is there a curtain over the portrait of the "last Duchess"? (Hint: can the portrait be moved?)
    3. Why is it so important that the portrait of the Duchess is full-length and extremely lifelike? How does the replacement of the real Duchess with her portrait work? What does the Duke gain by this replacement? What does he lose?
    4. How does the bronze statue of Neptune taming a seahorse relate to the portrait of the Duchess? Why does the Duke make a point of showing this second object to the Count’s servant?

    Chew on This

    Even though the Duke is a collector of art objects, he doesn’t really appreciate them; he only cares about the way they increase his status and demonstrate his power.

  • Madness

    In "My Last Duchess," a husband murders his wife because she blushes and smiles at other people – even though theses blushes are out of her control and probably entirely innocent. This is pretty much the textbook definition of an abusive, controlling husband. The Duke doesn’t even want his wife to thank people for gifts, because it makes him jealous. But we think this goes beyond abuse into the realm of madness: after all, trying to control someone is abuse; thinking that because someone blushes she must be having an affair, and that the only remedy is murder is just insane.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is the Duke actually crazy? Which aspects of his speech and behavior suggest that he’s a psychopath? Which suggest that he’s sane but cruel?
    2. Does the Duke seem capable of analyzing his own behavior? That is, does he hint that he knows how extreme his actions are?
    3. What does the Duke disclose to his listener without intending to do so? How do these disclosures change our opinion of his sanity or insanity?

    Chew on This

    The Duke’s obsession with totalitarian power, and his tendency to punish innocent or nearly innocent behavior with the most extreme penalties, make it clear that he’s a psychopath.

  • Jealousy

    The Duke in "My Last Duchess" is pretty much the green-eyed monster incarnate. He’s almost an allegorical figure for jealousy. He’s jealous of the attention his wife shows to other people – even if all she does is thank them for bringing her some cherries. He’s jealous of every smile and every blush that she bestows, intentionally or unintentionally, on someone else. He’s so jealous that he can’t even bring himself to talk to her about her behavior – murder is the only solution he can come up with. His jealousy isn’t just about romantic attention; it’s about any kind of attention.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. What evidence can you find in the poem to suggest that the Duke suspects the Duchess of having, or at least seeming to have, a lover? Is there any evidence that she’s actually having an affair? Does that matter to the Duke?
    2. Why is the Duke jealous of the smiles and thanks that the Duchess shows to other people? Does he actually value her smiles and thanks? Does he want her to give all her admiration to him, or to stifle her admiring behavior entirely?
    3. When the Duke imagines different ways of telling the Duchess about his jealousy, he comes up with "here you miss, / Or there exceed the mark" (38-39). What is "the mark"? How does the Duke use "the mark" to judge the Duchess's behavior? Is the mark at all related to the "spot of joy" (21)?

    Chew on This

    The Duke is jealous of the way the Duchess treats other people, not because he loves her and wants all her love for himself, but because he wants her to acknowledge his power over her.