STORY / SUMMARY
We’re looking at the portrait of the last duchess, painted and hanging on the wall — the Duke of Ferrara says she looks like she’s alive, so we know she died. The Duke is talking to an envoy — a messenger/servant of a low-class position; he has decided to show him around his private art gallery. He says it’s an amazing painting, a ‘wonder’. The painter — Fra Pandolf — worked hard on it for a day and now it’s complete. The Duke is speaking to an envoy of his new wife-to-be’s family, and he asks if he wants to sit and look at the painting. He says he called it a ‘Fra Pandolf’ painting because some strangers look at it and start to question how lifelike the woman seems, ‘the depth and passion’ of her expression look so intense and realistic (a suggestion that she had perhaps flirted with the painter).
The Duke says these strangers ask about the painting because he is the only one who can show it to them. We realize that the envoy has also asked about her expression. The Duke says it wasn’t only her husband that made her look so attractive; and lists the attractive parts of her: the blush in her cheeks, her wrists, her throat.
The Duke says that she was too easily pleased by the attention of others, and she liked everything, and she was interested in everything and everyone (not only the Duke, as he seems to have wanted). He says it was all the same to her — she loved his attention, the daylight fading, a gift of cherries from a man, riding her white horse around the castle grounds — all these things brought the same look of pleasure to her face. It was fine for her to be grateful to other men, he says, but he was annoyed that she treated them in the same way she treated him — as if his ‘gift’ of an ancient aristocratic name was only as good as their gifts.
The Duke says even if he was skilled at talking, it wouldn’t have been worth speaking his mind to her and letting her know that ‘this disgusts me’ or ‘you went too far’. Even if he had done this and she had listened, it would have still been ‘stooping’ on his part — i.e. lowering himself to her level. She smiled when he passed her, but she also smiled at everyone else. He gave orders and the smiles stopped — this suggests that he ordered her to be killed.
The poem switches back to focusing on the painting, where the Duchess looks like she’s still alive. There’s a shift in tone as the Duke asks the envoy to leave. We realize that the Count is downstairs, and the envoy works for him. They are arranging a payment (dowry) for the Count’s daughter, who will soon be married to the Duke and become the new Duchess. On the way out the Duke asks the envoy to look at a bronze sculpture of Neptune taming a seahorse.
- The Duke (Duke Alfonso of Ferrara) is the speaker in the poem.
- We know that he’s been married at least once before and that his wife died — by the end, it is suggested that he killed her.
- As the poem progresses we start by thinking he’s upset by his wife’s death and is trying to commemorate her; by the end, we realize he is not a nice person and that he killed her we switch from sympathy to shock and disgust.
- He is unphased by her death and is already remarrying.
- His words are cold, practical, and superior.
- His cool manner when speaking about his last wife suggests that he is comfortable with death and murder, and as he is speaking to the envoy of his new wife it presents a threat to her that she will also be killed if she doesn’t behave as he wishes.
- The other voices in the poem are silent — the envoy listens and sometimes asks short questions, be we don’t know exactly what he asks — we assume he speaks and responds, but the Duke clearly dominates the conversation — he uses his power and status to gain control.
- Art / Beauty
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