Analysis of the Robert Browning Poem 'My Last Duchess'

A Dramatic Monologue

Robert Browning
Herbert Rose Barraud/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

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

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.

The misogynistic character of the poem is also a severe contrast to Browning himself who was a master of 'negative capability.' Browning would often write poetry of men like the duke who dominated (and barely loved) his wife while penning endearing love poems to his own Elizabeth.

"My Last Duchess" is a poem to that engages conversation and it is a perfect study for any student of classic literature.

The Contrast of the Brownings' Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous sonnet asks, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?" Sounds lovely, does it not? On the other hand, "Porphyria's Lover," an infamous poem that was written by Elizabeth's husband, would count the ways in a very disturbing and unexpected manner.

  • Step 1) Welcome the beautiful girl into your secret meeting place.
  • Step 2) Listen while she declares her undying love for you.
  • Step 3) Tenderly wrap her long, golden hair around her throat.
  • Step 4) Strangle her.
  • Step 5) Sit happily next to her dead body.

The above list is a disgustingly violent scenario, the sort one might expect to find in a grizzly episode of some CSI knock-off or straight-to-video slasher flick. Or maybe it's even darker than that, due to the last nihilistic lines of the poem:

And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word! (lines 59-60)

If it were read aloud in a creative writing classroom today, the students would probably shift uncomfortably in their seats, and the unsettled English teacher might very well recommend counseling for the poet. Yet, far from modern, "Porphyria's Lover" is a product of England's prim and oh-so-proper Victorian society of the mid-1800s, and the poet was an adoring husband in favor of equality for women.

So why then does Browning delve into the mindset of a misogynistic sociopath, not just with "Porphyria's Lover," but also with the deviously cruel poem "My Last Duchess"?

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. In order to critique the oppressive, male-dominated society of his age, Browning gave voice to villainous characters, each representing the antithesis of his worldview.

Browning does not eliminate his personal virtues from all of his poetry. This dedicated husband also wrote sincere and tender poems to his wife; these romantic works, such as "Summum Bonum," unveil the true and benevolent nature of Robert Browning.

The Theme of "My Last Duchess"

Even if readers give "My Last Duchess" a mere passing glance, they should be able to detect at least one element: arrogance.

The speaker of the poem exhibits an arrogance rooted in an audacious sense of male superiority. In simpler terms: he is stuck on himself. But to understand the deadliness of the Duke's powerhouse combo of narcissism and misogyny, the reader must delve deeply into this dramatic monologue, paying close attention to both what is said as well as unsaid.

It is evident that the speaker's name is Ferrara (as suggested by the character heading at the beginning of the speech). 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.

Understanding the 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" display more artistry, more theatrics in storytelling because they are not merely confessional tirades (as with "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 duke is speaking to a courtier of a wealthy count. 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 seen a curtain which conceals a painting, and the duke decides to treat his guest to a viewing of a very special portrait of his late wife.

The courtier is impressed, perhaps even mesmerized by the smile of the woman in the painting and he asks what produced such an expression. And 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.

Notice how he keeps the painting behind a curtain until he feels like showing it to others. He has control over who views the painting, mastery over the painted smile of his deceased wife.

As the monologue continues, the Duke brags about the fame of the painter: Fra Pandolf (a quick tangent: " fra" is a shortened version of friar, a holy member of the church. Note how the Duke uses a holy member of the church as part of his plan to capture and control his wife's image).

It pleases the Duke that his wife's smile has been preserved within the artwork.

The Character of the Late Duchess

During the Duchess' life, the Duke explains, his wife would offer that beautiful smile to everyone, instead of reserving her look of joy 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 the duchess "ranked / [his] gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift" (lines 32 - 34). He 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' 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 "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). Keep in mind, he does not give commands to his wife; as the duke indicates, instruction would be "stooping." Rather, he delivers orders to his minions who then execute this poor, innocent woman.

Is the Duchess So Innocent?

Some readers believe that the Duchess isn't so innocent, that her "smiles" are really a code word for promiscuous behavior. Their theory is that whoever she smiles at (a servant for example) is someone she engages in a sexual relationship.

However, if she were sleeping around with everything she smiled at (the setting sun, a branch from a cherry tree, a mule), then we would have a duchess who is a not only a sexual deviant but must possess the physical prowess similar to a Greek goddess. How else could she have sex with the sun?

Although the Duke is not the most reliable of narrators, he keeps most of his conversation on a literal, not a symbolic, level. He may be an untrustworthy character, yet the reader should trust that when he says a smile, he means a smile.

If the duke executed a lustful, adulterous wife, that would still make him a bad guy, but a different sort of bad guy: a vengeful cuckold. However, if the duke executed a faithful, kind-hearted wife who failed to revere her husband above all others, then we are witnessing a monologue performed by a monster. That is exactly the experience which Browning means for his audience.

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 a critique of the feudalistic ways of medieval Europe and more of an attack on the biased, overbearing views expressed during Browning's day.

How uptight was England's Victorian society of the 1800s? A historical article titled "Sexuality and Modernity" explains that "The Victorian bourgeois may have covered their piano legs out of modesty." That's right, those pent-up Victorians were turned on by the sensuous curve of a piano's leg!

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" (Salisbury and Kersten). All of these traits are exhibited by the Duchess if we assume that allowing herself to be married to a creep in order to please her family is 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 with a frightening variety of incurable diseases.

Robert and Elizabeth Browning

Fortunately, Browning was not transposing his own personality into "My Last Duchess." He was far from the typical Victorian and married a woman who was both older and socially his superior.

He adored his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning so much that together they defied her father's wishes and eloped. Over the years, they raised a family, supported each other's writing careers, and loved each other as equals.

Clearly, Browning used what Keats called negative capability to invent a character that was strikingly unlike his own: a vicious, controlling duke whose morals and beliefs contrasted with those of the poet. Yet, perhaps Browning was observing fellow members of Victorian society when he crafted the devious lines of Duke Ferrera.

Barrett's father, although not a murderous lord from the 16th-century, he 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, she became dead to her father and he never saw her again… unless, of course, he kept a picture of Elizabeth on his wall.