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Most of Robert Browning’s poetry reflected the behaviors and values of individuals during the Victorian era (Adler 219). Although the poem “My last Duchess” was written in 1842, the characters reflect those of the 15th century. Again, while Browning’s poems portrayed a domineering nature of men who did not appreciate or love their wives and only treated them as objects, Browning treated his wife, Elizabeth differently. Thus, judging by the poems he wrote about Elizabeth, it is evident that Browning loved his wife. Therefore, Browning adopted a writing style known as ‘negative capability.’ In “My Last Duchess,” it is easy to realize at a glance that the theme of the poem is arrogance, which is illustrated by the Duke, whose name by judging the name on the opening scene is Ferrara. So, in this analysis, I will look at the duke’s arrogant character, the Duchesses’ character, and the drama of the monologue.
The Duke’s Character
The poem is told as a monologue by the Duke who has a bold sense of male supremacy exhibited by his arrogance. As a matter of fact, the Duke does not care about anyone else except himself. Although he uses a polite tone while talking to his audience (the courtier), naturally, he does not expect him to say no to anything he says. Therefore, when he asks the courier if he wants to look at his wife’s (the Duchess) picture, it is more of a command than a polite question. He expects the courtier to sit and look at the portrait anyway; whether he wants to or not. Also, the Duke intends to remain an idol of worship to everybody, especially his wife, and when she does not do that and instead give her attention to other things and people, he orders his minions to kill her. Consequently, the self-righteous nature of the Duke is observed through the narration of events to the courtier showing that he wanted to be the only person or object of his wife’s worship. Despite his displeasure in his wife, he refused to be rational and talk to her about his feelings as he deemed that was beneath him and his name. Thus, he could not tell his wife about his jealousy and ask her to change her behavior because he saw that as stooping (line 42-43). So, instead of talking to his wife, he orders her to be murdered (Browning 1979).
The Duchess’ Character
Following the monologue of the Duke, one can tell that the Duchess, when she was alive was a kind-hearted character who smiled a lot. In fact, she had an appreciation for everything around her, people, birds, plants, the sun, kindness of other individuals, nature, and the little pleasures of life. Hence, she gave her beautiful smile to everyone rather than exclusively reserve it for her husband. As a result, her husband was infuriated and disgusted. Similarly, it seems that the duke’s wife loved him and cared about him and gave him the look of joy and smile often. However, the Duke felt that, because he had given her a great gift of his” nine hundred years old name’ she should reserve the gift of her wonderful smile only for him, but giving it to others, she compared his gift with others (line 32-34) (Friedland 658). Although the Duke carefully hides his emotions from the courtier, the readers can deduce by themselves that the behavior of the Duchess made him furious.
But how innocent or guilty was the duchess? Some people believe that the “smiles” explained by the Duke were actually a code word for infidelity. In consequence, the theory presented is that whoever the Duchess smiled at was an individual she has sexual affairs with. Nonetheless, this belief is shot into the sky by the fact that she smiled to everything including the sun and cherry trees. For this reason, it would appear that unless she had the physical form of a goddess, she could not have had sex with trees or the sun. In this case, the narrator used his words in a literal way, and every word meant what he said exactly. Therefore, the Duke was only a monster who murdered his innocent and kind wife due to his arrogance.
The Drama of the Monologue
From the beginning of the poem, drama is sensed with the character of the poem doing the monologue by talking to his audience instead of the poet talking to his readers. As such, the reader is able to create a picture of how the events are unfolding and the setting of the events. The Duke escorts a courtier through what the reader can judge as an art gallery with paintings displayed, but his eye catches a painting hidden behind a curtain. Then the Duke asks his audience if he would like to sit down and look at his late wife’s art. In this scene, the reader can detect reactions which create drama. Additionally, the courtier asks what had produced an expression such as the one on the duchess’ face, meaning that he was impressed or mesmerized by her smile (Friedland 656). Also, the Duke behaves in a cordial manner as he explains the painting to his audience, which is dramatization since he is anything but polite in his natural self. He continues to show his public persona by bragging about the famous painter, friar (a holy member of the Church) who painted his wife. Although the reader can understand that he used a holy man as a painter because he did not want ‘ordinary’ people seeing his wife’s smile. The same is witnessed because the Duke hides his wife’s portrait behind a curtain, thus, controlling who views it.
- Adler, Joshua. “Structure and Meaning in Browning’s” My Last Duchess”.” Victorian Poetry (1977): 219-227.
- Browning, Robert. Robert Browning’s poetry: authoritative texts, criticism. Ed. James F. Loucks. WW Norton, 1979.
- Friedland, Louis S. “Ferrara and” My Last Duchess”.” Studies in Philology 33.4 (1936): 656-684.