My Last Duchess: A Feminist Reading

There are a number of points we could make if reading this poem from a feminist viewpoint. Here are some of them:

* Women are objectified in the poem – use of possessive pronoun ‘my’ at the start and the objectification of the count’s daughter as the duke’s ‘object’ at the end.

* The duchess is portrayed as the stereotype of an ‘immoral and dangerous seductress’ – she ‘thanked men’ and ‘her looks went everywhere’. In this sense, she holds a real power over the Duke: she is able to incite fear of emasculation through infidelity (rather like Leontes’ fear of being cuckolded in ‘The Winter’s Tale).

* Within this society, there is no place for women to hold this type of power – the duchess is prevented from maintaining such a position by the duke’s abuse of his position of power – ‘all smiles stopped’.

* Readers may see the duchess as the ‘cute but essentially helpless’ stereotype – she can appear unthinking, lacking judgement – ‘she liked whatever she looked on’. She is undiscriminating, unthinking perhaps.

* The duke is unable (and unwilling) to upset the status quo by asking the duchess to change her behaviour. This, he says, would be ‘some stooping’. His pride as the alpha male results in his abuse of power when he has her ‘stopped’ (killed) instead.

* The language he uses is indicative of the balance of power between them: ‘if she let / Herself be lessoned so’ suggests his authority over her, as does his imagined dialogue: ‘Just this / Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss / Or there exceed the mark’. 

* The setting is important – as a painting, the duchess has become assimilated into the duke’s display of wealth. She now exists to bolster his pride (and of course, always did.) Futhermore, as a work of art, she fulfills the stereotype of the woman as beautiful, to be admired. She is a clear example of how the ‘male gaze’ reduces ‘femininity’ to ‘beauty’. 

* The curtain acts as a metaphor for the Duke’s control. He now is able to prevent other men from usurping his position as ruler, because he controls the curtain – ‘none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I…’

* Women are defined by their relationship to men – ‘my last duchess’ and ‘his fair daughter’ – neither are given their own name or identity.

The above points are not in any order, nor do they form an exhaustive list of everything there is to say about this poem in terms of feminism. They are a starting point for your essay, which is due in on Thursday 11th October.

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5 thoughts on “My Last Duchess: A Feminist Reading

  1. OR is the duke rendered powerless by the duchess’ sexual confidence, forcing him to kill her as the only way to restore his masculinity? Is there a sexual connotation in Neptune’s ‘taming’ the sea-horse as the Duke tries to ‘tame’ his wife? I think we discussed this when we did the poem last year.

    I just finished my first Oxford essay! It was on Hard Times, North and South and Mary Barton. The Industrial Novel is very deep … when they don’t get sidetracked by a melodramatic love story and make you think “where did the social criticism go? Elizabeth! Be consistent!”

    1. Lovely to have you still with us! Congrats on finishing the first essay! What are you reading now?

      I first read North and South when my parents were considering moving us to Burnley. It filled me with such a dread of the ‘Industrial North’ that I was convinced we would all die horrible and painful deaths if we moved there. Probably from some manner of poisoning from all the fumes in the air. We ended up staying in London, to be poisoned by southern fumes instead. In retrospect, I think I may have missed the point somewhat.

  2. You have some really great points in this article! I am writing a research paper for one of my classes and was wondering if you could please provide me with some citation information? Thanks!

  3. Reading that poem, I remember I felt very bad the poor ‘Last Duchess,’ whose only fault (I’d be more inclined to call it a virtue) was being simple, happy, and socially unsophisticated and unskilled, the next girl whom this dangerous horror of a Duke would marry, and the poor emissary, powerless to stop another such union from being made.

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