My Last Duchess by Robert Browning is a dramatic monologue about a duke who is showing the portrait of his first wife, the duchess, to a servant of his future father-in-law, the Count. In a dramatic monologue, the speaker addresses a distinct but silent audience. Through his speech, the speaker unintentionally reveals his own personality. As such, in reading this poem, the reader finds the duke to be self-centered, arrogant, controlling, chauvinistic and a very jealous man. The more he attempted to conceal these traits, however, the more they became evident. There is situational irony (a discrepancy between what the character believes and what the reader knows to be true) in this because the duke does not realize this is what is happening. Instead, he thinks he appears as a powerful and noble aristocrat.
Robert Browning, the poet, uses iambic pentameter throughout the poem. He breaks up the pattern so that every two lines rhyme. Aside from being a dramatic monologue, the poem is also considered lyric poetry because it is a poem that evokes emotion but does not tell a story. The poem is being told in the speaker’s point-of-view about his first duchess, also as revealed in the title, The Last Duchess. The setting is important because the duke’s attitude correlates to how men treated women at that time. The theme of the poem appears to be the duke’s possessive love and his reflections on his life with the duchess, which ultimately brings about murder and his lack of conscience or remorse.
In the first several lines (1-8) of the poem , the duke is addressing an unknown listener. He only uses the pronoun “you” so it is never clear until the ending who the intended listener is. He begins by pointing out the portrait on the wall of his “last Duchess” and mentions, not in the least bit sad, that the Duchess is “Looking as if she were alive.” This immediately tells the reader that the Duchess is no longer living, but the Duke doesn’t stop for a moment. He just continues on to brag about who the painter was by mentioning his name more than once (Fra Pandolf’s hands Worked busily a day…I said “Fra Pandolf” by design…”) This not only shows his apathy, but his arrogance too. The Duke goes on to say that “since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I,” (9-10) he is telling the listener that he doesn’t open the curtain on the portrait for just anyone. Of course, he is already beginning to show his controlling nature when he makes sure the viewer knows he is privileged to see the portrait. As well, it shows that he wants to have power over his wife in the portrait, which he did not have when she was alive.
As the Duke continues (11-21), it is obvious he was angry about others paying attention to the Duchess. He thought she should be for “his presence only.” when he says “Sir, ‘twas not Her husband’s presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek:”And then pointed out several comments made by Fra Pandolf, the artist who painted her portrait, “Her mantle laps Over my lady’s wrist too much, or “Paint Must never hope to reproduce the faint Half-flush that dies along her throat.” The Duke complained because the Duchess “had a heart and was made happy too easily,” like when she saw the sunset in the west, or someone gave her cherries, or just rode her white mule around the terrace and received compliments. He was more than disappointed that she thought so much of these joys in her life and never treated the “nine-hundred-years-old” name he gave her any differently than she treated any other gift she received.(22-34).
In the next stanza, the Duke says that even if he were skilled enough (which he really was – another touch of irony) to speak to the Duchess about how disgusted he was with her actions, he would not stoop to her level. (“Who’d stoop to blame This sort of trifling? Even had you skill In speech – which I have not – to make your will… Just this Or that in you disgusts me…E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose Never to stoop.”). (35-43) Back in that time, the thought was that a woman was not equal to a man so he could never stoop to talking to her about this matter, especially given the fact she might say something back and make an excuse, and make him look like a fool. He should be able to make the command and she would obey.
“This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.” Evidently, it only got worse. He must have been raging inside — he couldn’t bare the thought of her not worshipping only him any longer so he was willing to destroy her. He doesn’t say specifically, but one could only imagine that he gave orders to have her killed, another sign of his controlling and commanding nature. (One might think that he lost control, however, when he had her killed – another possibly irony).
At this point, as described in lines 47-53, the Duke looks back to the portrait once again. He finally mentions that the listener is a servant of the Count, the father of the woman he is planning to marry next. He mentions the large dowry that he wouldn’t mind accepting, obviously negotiating the terms of a new marriage agreement. As they turn away from the portrait and go to join the rest of the company, the duke casually points out one of his other possessions, a bronze statute of Neptune taming a sea-horse. (54-56) Again, he mentions the sculpter’s name, obviously trying to make an impression. And it is obvious that he likes this sculpture because he compares the power and associated with it, with how he wanted to appear with his power and control over women.
After reading this poem, it is obvious to think that the Duke was definitely a cruel and heartless man. Assuming he had his first wife killed, he didn’t seem to care. He just forged ahead in an attempt to find another woman he could control. As a matter of fact, he used his influence to actually warn the servant of his plans for his marriage to the Count’s daughter. Instead of mourning his first wife, he seemed to revel in the fact that he was now able to control her beauty in the portrait by only allowing viewing to those he invited to see it when he opened the curtain. Oh, what a powerful feeling that must have been for him! In the 20th century, however, I think this poem would have been written differently to reflect the freedom women have today. No woman would have put up with him! Maybe the Duke would have had second thoughts about how he treated his beautiful Duchess.