Written in 1845, Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” conveys the opinions of a wealthy nobleman addressing a marriage broker about his late wife’s painting. During the Victorian era, women were viewed more as property than real humans capable of emotions. Men controlled every facet of a relationship; equality in marriage was relatively unheard of. Browning loosely bases this poem on a real historical figure, the Duke of Ferrara, to help with his poetic endeavors. Robert Browning constructs this poem as a dramatic monologue, which allows the inadvertent revelation of different aspects of a character through the description of a series of events or a specific situation. Superficially, the duke seems to be lovingly reminiscing about his late wife, but his attitude presents something much darker. The Duke alludes himself to be arrogant, controlling, and jealous. Through dramatic monologue form, the Duke reveals his true nature as an amoral murderer.
To an extent, the Duke’s amoral nature could be due to his position as an aristocrat. Aristocrats are able to enjoy the finer things in life; therefore, there is room for arrogance to arise. Through subtle comments, the Duke makes his own arrogance known. In the poem, the Duke scoffs at the idea that his late wife could rank, “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift” (lines 33-34). The Duke thinks he was generous in allowing her to be married to him. He feels that her recognition of the ??gift’ he had given her should have been clear. A moment later, the Duke reasserts his superiority by stating, “I choose/Never to stoop” (lines 42-43). The Duke feels that he is too important to be bothered with minor annoyances. The Duke refuses to stoop to the lowness of addressing his late wife’s behavior that clearly annoys him. Even in superficially humble statements, the Duke’s arrogance is further seen. The Duke states, “Even had you skill/In speech?”which I have not” (lines 35-36). This ironic statement negates any modesty that the Duke may have possessed. The Duke uses imperious diction to express his authority and his education. Browning uses eloquent language to draw the audience in through the Duke. The Duke is aware that he has great skill in speech and is also aware that the marriage broker knows this. The Duke’s display of modesty is merely an illusion.
At the heart of this poem, the Duke’s defining characteristic is his need to control. As a man and an aristocrat, the Duke has significant control. At the beginning of the poem, the Duke describes the history of the painting while also brags about Fra Pandolf, the famed artist who painted the portrait. He mentions his name three separate times (lines 3, 6, 16). The first time was necessary to make the listener aware of who painted the work, while the other two times could have been substituted. This repetition suggests the Duke is pleased with himself for being wealthy and able to obtain such an artist. In lines 9-10, the Duke states, in parenthesis, “since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I.” The Duke says that he alone possesses the power to display the painting. This declaration emphasizes his control. This line is significant because it shows that the duchess is now under his absolute control and can only be seen if he desires it. Due to the Duke feeling a lack of control over his wife, he resorts to murdering her. “She had/A heart?”how shall I say??” too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed” (lines 21-23). The Duke believes his wife was too appreciative of the attention other men paid her. He did not outright accuse her of adultery, but condemned her flirtatious behavior, “all and each/Would draw from her alike the approving speech,/Or blush, at least” (lines 29-31). To the Duke, every man who passed his wife had an intimate moment. In lines 43-46, the Duke gave “commands” and “Then all smiles stopped together.” At the end of the poem, the Duke and the marriage broker are leaving and states “Notice Neptune, though,/Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,/Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me” (lines 54-56). The Duke’s description of the statue is synonymous to the one he gave to his duchess’ portrait.
Jealousy drives the Duke to commit murder. His jealousy stemmed from his perceived lack of control that he had over his wife. Aforementioned, the Duke believes his wife was too appreciative of the attention other men gave her. The Duke states “The bough of cherries some officious fool/ Broke in the orchard for her” (lines 27-28). Men often gave her gifts, which infuriated the Duke. Lines 29-31 emphasizes that she too participated in flirting. “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,/Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without/Much the same smile? This grew” (lines 43-45). According to the Duke, these trespasses were too hard to ignore. The duchess’ smiles aroused a powerful anger that drove the Duke to only now have her a portrait behind curtains.
“My Last Duchess” allows the insight into the character of the Duke, instead of his last duchess. The Duke inadvertently showed himself to be arrogant, controlling, and jealous under the guise of appreciating his late wife’s portrait. Through dramatic monologue form, Browning allows the Duke to reveal his sinister qualities while subtly condemning the nobility for poor character.
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