Robert Brownings “My Last Duchess”

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Published in 1842, “My Last Duchess” opens the reader to the mysterious story concerning the relations between sixteenth century’s Duke of Ferrara and his first wife, Lucrezia De’ Medici. (Guthrie.) Criticizing this literature under a feminine eye allows the audience to recognize the unjust treatment and high expectations of women. Robert Browning aims to portray the mistreatment and neglect of women during this period while also creating an image of an egotistical power-seeking male character.

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Duke Alfonso II married his first wife, Lucrezia De’ Medici in the summer of 1558. She was beautiful and came from great wealth which were both qualifying attributes of a royal wife during this time. Not long into their marriage, Lucrezia fell ill with what was once thought to be tuberculosis, but it’s been rumored that she may have been poisoned. After her death during the spring of 1561, the Duke remarried to Barbara of Austria in 1565. Again, Barbara fell ill with similar symptoms that Lucrezia endured such as fever, weight loss, and nose bleeds before she passed away at the tender age of 33. (Patzer, 2014.) The similarity between deaths lead the public to believe that Duke Alfonso II was using these women to keep him company and once they were no longer serving him or making him happy, he needed to find means of disposing them, and divorce was not an attractive option for royalty.

It is apparent that the speaker of “My Last Duchess” is the Duke of Ferrara as Browning decides to make the introduction line simply, “Ferrara” (page 692, Browning). In the beginning of the poem where the Duke is proudly presenting the painting of Lucrezia De’ Medici, he seems to put her on a respected pedestal. In the second line he explains, “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?” (line 2-5, Browning). The narrator recognizes the painting as a wonder that was meticulously crafted and is pleased to show it off to his guest. While the Duke continues to speak of his deceased wife, he talks of her traveling eyes and how she found pleasure in all things, even when the Duke was not involved. He goes on to say, “She had a heart- how shall I say? Too soon made glad, too easily impressed, she liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” (line 21-24, Browning). This is the first instant in the poem where the Duke’s tone begins to turn negative when speaking about Lucrezia, and where the speculation that he may have had her killed begins. Within the poem, the Duke is speaking to a representative of another nobleman whose daughter he is soon to marry. He goes on to give examples of what his first wife fawned over, almost as a warning to the guest of what will not be accepted of his next marriage. His tone grows aggressive and selfish when speaking of Lucrezia’s interactions with other men who brought her gifts. In line 32, the narrator says “Somehow- I know not how- as if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.” (Browning), which confirms his narcissism. The Duke felt that Lucrezia was unappreciative of his choice to wed her, and that he deserved praise and appreciation for it. The constant emphasis of power that Browning gives to the Duke in turn, begin to diminish his authority.

In the text of “My Last Duchess” the reader perceives the speaker as a proud man with little sorrows in life. His relaxed flow between the dense subject of his wife’s death back to hosting the party downstairs display the shallowness of his character. The words that the Duke use to describe his departed wife make her out to be a dangerous seductress committing adultery, when she was simply a joyous human who found beauty in all things. This intimidates the Duke as she incites fear in him through infidelity explaining why he feels that he must take it upon himself to have her killed. By having his wife murdered followed directly by hiring a famous monk to paint a portrait of her, the Duke feels he now has ownership over Lucrezia. “That’s my last duchess” (line 1, Browning) he says, shows he feels possessive over her as he begins to objectify her. The way the speaker talks of the Duchess displays the unproportionate balance between the couple. He hides her painting behind a curtain so that finally, he is the only person allowed to enjoy her ‘company’. This curtain symbolizes the Duke’s strain for power, as he says, “since none puts by the curtain, I have drawn for you, but I” (line 9-10, Browning). During the sixteenth century, society rejected powerful women even when they were of royalty. This aids in explanation of Duke Alfonso II’s power-hungry character since Lucrezia challenged his comfortability. (Saminsky, 2010.)

Another example of the Dukes insensitivity towards the matter of his wife’s passing, is when him and the representative are returning to the party and the speaker points out the statue of Neptune saying, “Notice Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse, through a rarity” (line 54-55, Browning). The rapid topic change lowers the value and respect that the Duke holds for his wife’s portrait, as he is easily able to talk about another artwork shortly after. The Duke naturally speaks confidently as he directs his guest around and never lets him get a word in.

Both the time period of which this poem was based off along with when it was published, women were not allowed to be their own person or hold power. Women were expected to conform to their surroundings and especially to the men in their lives. Lucrezia De’ Medici came from riches and this may have aided in her demeanor and how it crippled Duke Alfonso II’s ego. The Duke of Ferrara was searching for a woman who praised him and pleased him only, to which he failed twice. Viewing Robert Browning’s poem under a feminine criticism concluded the maltreatment endured by the wife of the Duke of Ferrara.

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Robert Brownings "My Last Duchess". (2021, Feb 26). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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