Alright folks, this is yet another essay I wrote. It was sort of due last Friday (February 9th), but I just finished it. Anyhoo, it is on Robert Browning’s canonical poem “My Last Duchess.” Enjoy, or don’t.
The Last Duke; or, What’s in a Name?
For aristocrats it is all about names and heritage. Thus, Robert Browning’s Duke is an exemplary aristocrat with an almost millennial legacy. His “nine-hundred-years-old name” is sacred and whoever disrespects it will suffer the consequences, even his “last,” more precisely previous Duchess. The heritage of the Duke’s seemingly prestigious name and family is at risk: there are no heirs who will carry on the family’s traditions. The former potential mother of his children is no longer, but a new one already is in sight.
The Duke is desperately trying to keep his family’s long traditions alive by setting children into this world. So far, he does not have any; at least there is no evidence in the poem whatsoever that he does. He could not live with himself if he were to be the trunk of such an old family tree as his, instead of a bough somewhere in the middle, with lots of ramifications below and even more above him. But as of now, he is not the father of any children.
What is more important to him than passing on his name is passing it on to his own children, keeping the bloodline pure, so to speak. That is why he had his previous Duchess killed. In his eyes, she was so promiscuous that the children she would have borne most likely would not have been his. Children who would have carried the Duke’s name but would not have had any of his family’s blood in their veins would be an unimaginable insult to him, and he probably would have felt the need to have them killed. So, instead of waiting for that to happen, he fought the problem at the source and had his wife killed.
This now leaves him without any chance of becoming a father at all. Which is why he is looking for his next Duchess, and this time he wants to make it right. His future wife, the mother of his children, is supposed to be faithful: “[the Count’s] fair daughter’s self […] is my object.” He is looking for a Duchess who will belong entirely to him, so that he can be certain that her children are also his. This is the reason for his telling the mediator about the fate of his previous Duchess. He wants to be clear about his objectives, and if the Count or his daughter had any objections the deal would be off.
The Duke did not feel love for his previous Duchess and he will not feel any for his next one. What he does love are his ancestors and the name they have bequeathed over the centuries, along with the art collectibles. He is a status-driven and materialistic Duke who could not care less about other people. But it is not his fault, it runs in the family.