Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue uttered by the Duke of Ferrari which highlights the jealous and sadistic nature of his character and the mysteriousness which surrounds his late wife’s demise.
The poem starts with him drawing the attention of the person whom he is talking to, who is, as one later finds out, a messenger from the Count’s family whose daughter’s hand the duke seeks in marriage; to the portrait of his late wife on the wall. The duke praises the work of the painter, Fra Pandolf, who had spent a whole day slaving over the painting to make it look so lifelike. He instructs the messenger to sit down, and goes on to describe how anyone who has ever seen that picturesque expression on his lady’s painted face, has never failed to ask him, as he has always been present for no one dares to draw the curtain from the painting except him, the reason behind the lively expression. He then thinks about his late wife, remembering that it wasn’t just his company which made her blush. He wonders that maybe it was the painter complimenting her that brought forth such a response from her, as she thought that such attentions were all just formalities and politeness. He continues on scorning the easily pleased nature of the duchess: she found something to praise in whatever she saw. Finding the fact disdainful that things so simple and unworthy as the sunset or a small offering of fruit some officer made her could make her as happy as his gift to her, his hand in marriage and a nine hundred year old name, did, he admits to the messenger that he did not approve of such unreservedness. He goes on to say that no one could really fault the duchess for her flighty nature, but even if he had the power of speech required to make his expectations from her clear, and had she been willing to do as he told, even then he could not think of sinking down to her level by telling her what displeases him. He hints at the fact that the duchess seemed to smile at everyone in the same way that she smiled at him, implying that perhaps she was unfaithful and treacherous. Such was the exasperation and disgust of the duke at his wife’s flirtatious habits that he suggests that her death was caused at his orders. He again directs the attention of both the messenger and the reader towards the painting and repeats himself from earlier saying that the portrait is so accurate that it looks like as if she’s standing there, alive.
He then instructs the messenger to stand and come with him to the party which has assembled below, reminding him haughtily that the magnificence of the count is enough guarantee that anything he asks for in dowry will not be refused, but claims at the same time that it is only the hand of his fair daughter that he seeks. While going out he points out a bronze bust showing the sea god, Neptune taming a wild sea horse.
The main feature of this poem is Browning’s artistic use of the dramatic monologue. Even though it is the duke who is talking about the character of the duchess to the messenger, one can glean lots of facts about his own character through the manner in which he speaks, and the way in which he describes his wife. This, coupled with the use of enjambment, the technique of inserting line breaks, and caesurae, emphasize the flow of the duke’s speech. It is not just a monologue in name; even written on paper this poem is so overflowing with different ideas that it seems like the duke’s thoughts were running into each other as he voiced his opinion about his late wife. Apart from this, symbolism is also used in a couple of places. First, the portrait hanging on the wall which is covered by a curtain which ‘none but the duke could draw’ is symbolic of how the controlling nature of the duke is satisfied when, if not in life then after death, only he has any say in who should look upon his late wife. Also, the bust of Neptune that he points out to the messenger on his way out, symbolizes how he tamed his free-spirited wife, much like Neptune tames the wild spirit of the sea horse.
Thus Browning, in a colorful and impressive monologue portrays a character that is as vile and maniacal as the language is flowery. The duke is shown to be a control-freak, an over imaginative psychopath who finds fault in the innocence of his wife’s youth, and condemns her to death. His controlling nature is evident from the start, in the way he dictates the emissary’s actions telling him when to sit and when to rise and how proud he is of the fact that no one is allowed to draw the curtain hiding his wife’s portrait but he. He has, in his imagination, reduced his once alive and lovely wife, to a mere possession, and refers to her painting as ‘a piece’ of wonder. One sees that it is not only his wife who thus dehumanized: when he talks about the painter, he praises his hands; reducing his person effectively to a mere tool that is used for painting. Then as he continues on, one can’t help but sense the intense jealousy which resides in the duke’s heart, as he scorns on how easily pleased his lady was of anything beautiful and pleasant. He cannot stand her blushing for, and smiling at everything and everybody who pleases her. He is full of self-importance, a trait that is tarnished and brought into question when his wife does not share his arrogance and haughty attitude. Such is his arrogance that having a normal conversation with his wife or telling her what he expects from her is considered by him to be below his standards. He chooses not to talk to her about her faults, which are naught but a liveliness of nature, a happy disposition, and a yearning for life, but rather ends that which he cannot control.
In this short poem, Browning weaves a compelling tale of mystery, murder and intrigue which in equal parts disgusts and delights the reader. One is appalled at the cruelty and madness of the duke, yet is amazed at the beauty and majesty of the language used, which is in no way below the level of Shakespeare. I enjoyed the poem immensely as it was a thrilling yarn which had me captivated throughout.