My Last Duchess | Study Guide

Robert Browning

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My Last Duchess | Themes



The theme of arrogance is significant in "My Last Duchess." The speaker—a duke whose wife is deceased—does not present himself as sorrowful over the loss of his wife. Instead, he reveals throughout the monologue he is conceited. The reader will do well to recall although the poem is, in theory, about the titular "last duchess," this is a dramatic monologue. Therefore, the poem is about the duke. What he reveals as he speaks about the duchess is more significant than what he would have the listener believe about her.

From the onset of the poem, the duke's sense of self-importance is evident. He begins by pointing out a painting of the late duchess. He stands with the servant of the count whose daughter was selected to become the next duchess. A count is of lower rank than a duke, but the duke speaks to the count's representative as if he were an equal. The duke emphasizes seeing the painting is a treat: "Since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I." The duke alone controls access to the duchess now. No one can look upon her portrait without his consent.

According to the duke, when the duchess was alive, she smiled and found joy easily: "She thanked men—good! but ... ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift." It can be implied the duke believed the duchess considered these other sources of joy not inferior, but equal, to his gift. Moreover, the listener in the poem (and the reader of the poem) will note the duke is confused by this. "I know not how," he says.

The duke's arrogance also is conveyed in his revelation he did not tell his wife what he perceived as slights: "E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose / Never to stoop." It was beneath him to tell her where she had faltered in his estimation.

It is not simply the duke's revelations about the duchess that illustrate the theme of arrogance. His pointed references to art objects reveal his self-importance. Although both artists referenced in the poem are fictional, the duke expects to elicit admiration from the servant when he mentions a name: "I said / 'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read / Strangers like you that pictured countenance, / The depth and passion of its earnest glance." Not only does the duke have control over who looks at the duchess, but her portrait is also a work of art. The duke's own status is apparent because he possesses art created by such fine artists. This is also paired with the close of the poem, where the duke points out another piece of art—Neptune taming the seahorse—that is "thought a rarity." From start to finish, the poem demonstrates the theme of arrogance.


The duke possesses great power, because of his "nine-hundred-years-old name," his wealth, or his social class. His family name is old and, in his estimation, should garner respect. The failure of his late wife to provide him with the respect he deserves resulted in her "looking as if she were alive."

With no apparent hesitation, the duke tells the listener: "I gave commands: / Then all smiles stopped together." He has the power to commit murder, and the power to avoid punishment for his actions. In fact, the listener is the servant of the count with whom the duke is negotiating to marry the next duchess. The count and his daughter are being informed of the duke's expectations.

The last duchess is deceased. She displeased him by failing to give him the respect he believed he was due, so he "gave commands." The visit with the count's servant serves as an opportunity to warn the future wife about what is expected of her.


"My Last Duchess" encompasses various modes of communication. The duke is expressing himself to the servant of the father of his future wife, and he conveys his message using direct speech, implication, false modesty, art, and gesture.

The direct speech is the clearest example. The entire poem is a dramatic monologue about the last duchess. In his words the duke highlights what he perceives to be the shortcomings of his deceased wife.

The duke falsely claims he is not "skilled" in expressing himself—"Even had you skill / In speech—which I have not—to make your will / Quite clear"—to explain why he had not informed his last wife where she was failing. This is followed later by an admission that to tell her would be "stooping." Direct explanation was beneath him.

Communication of the duchess's flaws is also done by way of implication and insinuation: "She had / A heart ... too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere." The duke does not directly accuse his deceased wife of infidelity, but he implies it. Later, the duke reveals the duchess was fascinated by such things as a sunset and a mule. Nonetheless, the duke suggests her attention should have been on him and his "nine-hundred-years-old name," rather than on other things.

The duke acknowledges occasionally his wife did give him attention: "Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, / Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without / Much the same smile?" In calling the servant "sir," the duke is appealing to the listener's own vanity. The duke continues this subtle communication by walking with the servant, rather than in front of him, as would befit his status: "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir."

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