Victorian Monologues

The Influences of Dramatist & Poet: Robert Browning

The year is 1846. Against her father's wishes, Elizabeth Barrett has secretly married Robert Browning, running away with him to the sun-strewn olive groves of northern Italy. They lie next to each other in bed, doing what they do best. They are writing. Mrs. Barrett Browning, with her gentle cursive, composes an eloquent sonnet that sings of a harmonious love that transcends death. Mr. Browning feverishly pens a new masterpiece about malformed love, obsession, and murder.

Like many other Victorian poets, both European and American, the Brownings fixate upon the connections between love and death; although it may seem as though the husband writes only about a lust for control. Yet, by all accounts, he was a loving and compassionate spouse.

Why does Browning delve into the mindset of a misogynistic sociopath, not just with "Porphyria's Lover," but also with the insidious poem "My Last Duchess"? In order to critique the oppressive, male dominated society of his age, Browning gave voice to villainous characters, each representing the antithesis of his world view. Yet Browning does not eliminate his personal virtues from all of his poetry. After marrying Elizabeth Barrett, Browning's poems become more open, more tender, unveiling the true and benevolent nature of the poet. Perhaps, it is Mrs. Browning's willingness to present the subject of love in a less controlling, more transcending and nurturing way that led to her husband's evolution as a writer.

The obsessive characters in Browning's early monologues, as well as other speakers in Victorian era poetry such as Poe's "Anabell Lee," erroneously attempt to fossilize their love. In contrast, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's speaker in Sonnet XLIII depicts a more dynamic and fulfilling approach to love.

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 (Surka). Although the historical accuracy of Alfonso's character is up for debate, there can be no mistaking that in Browning's fictionalized monologue, the reader comes face to face with a diabolical megalomaniac.

At first, 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.

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 simply 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" (Browning 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 divine gratitude infuriated her husband.

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Bradford, Wade. "Victorian Monologues." ThoughtCo, Mar. 28, 2013, thoughtco.com/history-of-victorian-monologues-2713184. Bradford, Wade. (2013, March 28). Victorian Monologues. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-victorian-monologues-2713184 Bradford, Wade. "Victorian Monologues." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-victorian-monologues-2713184 (accessed November 22, 2017).