"Pilate's Wife," like most of the poems in Carol Ann Duffy's collection The World's Wife, retells the story of an important man from history or literature from the perspective of one of his female relatives. In this poem, the speaker is the wife of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem who allowed Jesus to be crucified. Famously, Pilate symbolically washed his hands to show that he was done with the whole Jesus business, renouncing any responsibility for Jesus's fate in spite of the fact that he could have stopped the crucifixion with a snap of his fingers. In other words, Pilate was a legendary coward.
As the first stanza shows, Pilate's wife knows that her husband is weak even before the crucifixion—and that his hands have something to do with his weakness. The poem begins with her detailed portrait of Pilate’s “woman’s” hands: “pale, mothy,” and soft, manicured and ineffectual. His nails remind her of seashells from Galilee, an allusion to a sea where Jesus gave sermons that sets the poem in the biblical Middle East.
Through the description of Pilate’s hands, the speaker reveals other character traits she loathes about her husband. He, like his hands, is lazy, effeminate, and theatrical. The speaker shows her husband clapping to summon servants to feed him grapes, suggesting that he is unable to do anything for himself. His soft hands are the result of his laziness and self-indulgence.
The speaker explains that she not only resents her husband for his idleness, she also finds him sexually unappealing. His touch makes her “flinch.” This suggests that she was forced to marry Pilate against her will. Right from the start, then, readers understand that this speaker is living in a bad time and place to be a woman: an era in which women might have very little say over whom they married.
Besides foreshadowing Pilate's fateful hand-washing, the speaker's focus on hands shows that Pilate is wealthy, pampered, and powerful, with a safe and comfortable position in society.
Pilate's wife will tell her story in free verse: poetry without a regular rhyme scheme or meter. This choice makes the poem feel casual and confessional, as if she's whispering her story into the reader's ear rather than writing a formal composition.
However, this free verse is also compressed into regular quatrains (or four-line stanzas) with roughly even line lengths—a regularity that subtly hints this opinionated speaker might be constrained by her circumstances. As readers will soon see, her constraints will have serious consequences.