Will there ever be a “last” duchess?

In Browning’s “The Last Duchess” the speaker is revealed to be the pompous and self-important Duke of Ferrara. The dramatic monologue, centered around the Duke’s criticism of his “last duchess” or late wife reveals much about his character and his expectations for the Duke’s newly proposed marriage arrangement to the daughter of another family of power.

As the poem opens, the Duke stops to reminisce with his visitor on a portrait of the late Duchess who is “looking as if she were alive” (Line 2). However, the catalog of complaints about this lovely women quickly arise as the Duke’s tone shifts and begins to reveal the deep disdain and jealousy he held for his late wife. The Duke points out the joyous blush of her cheeks that “’twas not/ Her husband’s presence only, [that] called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (Lines 13-15). With this, he continues to make claims of her flirting with everyone and for having a “heart…too soon make glad/ too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (Lines 22-24). Perhaps we can have some empathy and relate to the Duke’s initial jealousy, however, his pridefulness revealed in lines 31-43 lead us to assume these were not mere moments of jealousy. In lines 31-35, the Duke complains of how “She thanked men–good! but thanked/ Somehow–i know not how–as if she ranked/ My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/ With anybody’s gift.” It is clear that the Duke blames his wife for enjoying the praises and life itself too much. He hates her for failing to appreciate his name, which she married into, and for not seeing him as superior to others.

As the monologue continues, the final characterization of the duke confirms with an ever-more chilling certainty that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess to be killed. His obsessive possessiveness and jealousy are clearly revealed in lines 45-47 when he describes how he “gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/ As if alive.” While he does not elaborate further the repetition of “there she stands/ As if alive” leads us to assume he resonates with a certain peace in his aforementioned actions. The Duke quickly shifts the subject of the conversation by inviting his visitor downstairs to meet others and shares of his new marriage arrangement. Along the way, he points out the bronze statue of “Neptune, though,/ Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,/ Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (lines 54-56). Though another haughty praise of his wealth, power, and prestige, the imagery of this seahorse aids to a deeper meaning the duke may have had in mind. Along with wealth, his new wife must be “tamed” like the seahorse in her role as his duchess, clearly foreshadowing that if she does not meet the Duke’s approval, her demise too could lead her to be “alive” like the “last duchess” only in a portrait.

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