Analysis of the Robert Browning's Poem 'My Last Duchess'

A Dramatic Monologue

Robert Browning

 

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Robert Browning was a prolific poet and at times his poetry drew a stark contrast to that of his famous wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was a rather gentle poet. A perfect example is his dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess," which is a dark and daring portrait of a domineering man.

The misogynistic character of the poem is a severe contrast to Browning himself who—while writing in the persona of men like the duke, who dominated (and barely loved) their wives—penned endearing love poems to his own Elizabeth.

Browning exercises what John Keats referred to as negative capability: an artist's capacity to lose himself in his characters, revealing nothing of his own personality, political views, or philosophies. 

Though written in 1842, "My Last Duchess" is set in the 16th century. And yet, it speaks volumes of the treatment of women in the Victorian time of the Brownings. To critique the oppressive, male-dominated society of his age, Browning often gave voice to villainous characters, each representing the antithesis of his worldview.

Dramatic Monologue

What sets this poem apart from many others is that it is a dramatic monologue—a type of poem in which a character distinctly different from that of the poet is speaking to someone else.

Actually, some dramatic monologues feature speakers who talk to themselves, but the monologues with "silent characters," such as “My Last Duchess,” display more artistry, more theatrics in storytelling because they are not mere confessions (as is Browning’s "Porphyria's Lover"). Instead, readers can imagine a specific setting and detect action and reaction based on the hints given within the verse.

In "My Last Duchess," the dramatic monologue is directed at a courtier of a wealthy count, presumably one whose daughter the Duke is trying to marry. Before the poem even begins, the courtier has been escorted through the Duke's palace—probably through an art gallery filled with paintings and sculptures. The courtier has noticed the curtain which conceals a painting, and the Duke decides to treat his guest to a viewing of this very special portrait of his late wife.

The courtier is impressed, perhaps even mesmerized by the smile of the woman in the painting. Based on the Duke’s words, we can infer that the courtier asked what produced such an expression. That's when the dramatic monologue begins:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? (lines 1-5)

The Duke behaves cordially enough, asking his guest if he would like to gaze at the painting—we are witnessing the speaker's public persona.

As the monologue continues, the Duke boasts about the fame of the painter: Fra Pandolf. "Fra" is a shortened version of friar, a holy member of the church, which might be an unusual first occupation for a painter.

The Duchess's Character

What the painting captures appears to be a watered-down version of the Duchess's joyfulness. While it is clear that the Duke doesn't approve of the "spot of joy" (lines 15-16) on her cheek, we aren't sure whether it is an addition fabricated by the friar or whether the Duchess did indeed blush during the painting session.

It is clear, however, that the Duke is pleased that his wife's smile has been preserved within the artwork. Yet, the painting appears to be the only place where the Duchess’ smile is allowed.

The Duke explains to his visitor that she would offer that beautiful smile to everyone, instead of reserving it exclusively for her husband. She appreciated nature, the kindness of others, animals, and the simple pleasures of everyday life, and this disgusts the Duke.

It seems the Duchess cared about her husband and often showed him that look of joy and love, but he feels that she "ranked / [his] gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift" (lines 32-34). She failed to sufficiently revere the name and family she married into.

The Duke might not reveal his explosive emotions to the courtier as they sit and look at the painting, but the reader can deduce that the Duchess's lack of worshipfulness infuriated her husband. He wanted to be the only person, the only object of her affection.

The Duke self-righteously continues his explanation of events, rationalizing that despite his disappointment it would have been beneath him to talk openly with his wife about his feelings of jealousy. He does not request, nor even demand that she alter her behavior because he finds that degrading: "E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose / Never to stoop" (lines 42-43).

He feels that communication with his own wife is beneath his class. Instead, he gives commands and "all smiles stopped together" (line 46). The reader can assume, however, that the duke does not give commands to her directly; to him, any instruction would be "stooping." 

The poem ends with the Duke leading the courtier to the rest of his party, reiterating that the Duke’s interest in the new lady is not only for her inheritance but also her own “self”—a great nod to the question of the speaker's reliability.

The final lines of the poem display the Duke showing off another of his artistic acquisitions.

Analysis of 'My Last Duchess'

“My Last Duchess” is a dramatic monologue presented in a single stanza. It is compiled predominantly of iambic pentameter and contains a lot of enjambment (sentences that don’t end at the end of the lines). As a result, the Duke’s speech seems always flowing, never inviting a space for any response; he is the one in complete charge.

Additionally, Browning uses heroic couplet as a rhyming scheme, yet the real hero of the poem is silenced. Similarly, the title and the Duchess' "spot of joy" seem to be the only places where the Duchess is entitled to some power.

Obsession with Control and Jealousy

The predominant theme of "My Last Duchess" is the speaker’s obsession with control. The Duke exhibits an arrogance rooted in an audacious sense of male superiority. He is stuck on himself—full of narcissism and misogyny.

As suggested by the character heading at the beginning of the speech, the speaker's name is Ferrara. Most scholars agree that Browning derived his character from a 16th-century Duke of the same title: Alfonso II d'Este, a renowned patron of the arts who was also rumored to have poisoned his first wife.

Being of a higher society, the speaker automatically possesses a large amount of authority and power. This is reinforced by the structure of the poem itself—in the monologue, with no response from the courtier, let alone the Duchess, the Duke is allowed to present himself and the story in whichever way suits him best.

His need for control, along with his jealousy, are also perceptible when the Duke decides to uncover the painting for the courtier. By being the only one with the power to reveal his wife’s portrait, constantly hidden behind a curtain, the Duke obtained the final and absolute power over his wife.

It is also interesting to note that the Duke chose a holy member of the church as part of his plan to capture and control his wife's image. On one hand, it is a twisted plan, coupling evil and holy together. And on the other hand, one could also speculate that someone as committed to God as a friar would be the smallest temptation for the Duchess’ smiles and thus Duke’s jealousy.

It has become clear that the Duke didn’t like his wife to smile at anyone else but him and required her to elevate him above everyone else. As a result, he “gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.” The Duke couldn’t bear not being the only one for Duchess’ smiles, and thus, presumably, had her killed.

Finally, at the end of the monologue, there is a reference to another of the Duke’s acquisitions—Neptune taming a sea-horse—which he points out is a rarity, cast in bronze specifically for him. As it is rarely random for elements like this to be without significance, we can draw a metaphor between the portrait and the statue. Just like the sea-horse, the Duchess was a rarity to the Duke, and just like with the statue, he desired to “tame” her and have her all for himself.

Is the Duchess so Innocent?

Some readers believe that the Duchess isn't as innocent and that her "smiles" are really a code word for promiscuous behavior. To what degree, we will never know. It is, however, possible that when the friar paints her, she blushes out of pleasure to be near him. And, it is similarly possible that when she “thanked men” in her multitude of ways, it went beyond the traditional boundaries.

One of the powerful aspects of this poem is indeed this uncertainty created for the reader—did the Duke execute a guilty wife or did he end the life of an innocent, kind-hearted woman?

Women in the Victorian Age

Certainly, women were oppressed during the 1500s, the era in which "My Last Duchess" takes place. Yet, the poem is less of a critique of the feudalistic ways of medieval Europe and more of an attack on the biased, overbearing views and rules of Victorian society.

Literature of the era, in circles both journalistic and literary, portrayed women as fragile creatures in need of a husband. For a Victorian woman to be morally good, she must embody "sensitivity, self-sacrifice, innate purity." All of these traits are exhibited by the Duchess, if we assume that her marriage was an act of self-sacrifice.

While many Victorian husbands desired a pure, virginal bride, they also desired physical, mental, and sexual conquest. If a man was not satisfied with his wife, a woman who was his legal subordinate in the eyes of the law, he might not kill her off as the Duke so cavalierly does in Browning's poem. However, the husband might very well patronize one of London's many prostitutes, thereby obliterating the sanctity of the marriage and endangering his innocent wife otherwise.

Robert and Elizabeth Browning

There is a possibility that the poem was somewhat inspired by the Brownings' own history. Robert and Elizabeth Browning got married despite Elizabeth’s father’s will. Although not a murderous lord from the 16th century, Barrett's father was a controlling patriarch who demanded that his daughters stay faithful to him, that they never move out of the home, not even to marry.

Like the Duke who coveted his precious artwork, Barrett's father wanted to keep hold of his children as if they were inanimate figures in a gallery. When she defied her father's demands and married Robert Browning, Elizabeth became dead to her father and he never saw her again…unless, of course, he kept a picture of Elizabeth on his wall.

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