Robert Browning (1812-1889)
A duke had murdered his seventeen-year-old wife after three years of marriage, and married another girl. The main character and speaker of the poem is Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara. The other person listening to him (his addressee) is the envoy (marriage agent) sent by the Count of another place called Tyrol.
The duke is talking about the painting on the wall while preparing to go down to meet the Tyrol, the father of the proposed girl, and other people who have come to finalize the new marriage proposal. The poem looks like a piece of small-talk, but it is meant to reveal a story of oppression, jealousy, pride, corruption, murder and the greed for dowry. And the true story behind the episode of the duke’s boasting, which the readers infer themselves is the theme of the poem. The theme of this poem is the wide gap between the so-called high culture and ‘low’ personal behavior in the upper and the ruling class of Renaissance Italy. The purpose of the poet is to expose the real character of the duke and satirize the culture that he represents, in general.
The monologue is designed in such a way that it reveals the true character of the duke who is having a small-talk with a visitor; the readers need to explore the story behind his boasting. As the duke is preparing to go downstairs, probably putting on his clothes, he sees that the messenger is looking at the paintings on the wall. He begins to talk about the painting of his previous wife (the duchess). He says that it was a painting by the famous Italian painter brother Pandolf. The way he repeats the name and uses ‘fra’ or ‘brother’ before the artist’s name suggests that the duke is trying to impress the visitor with his intimacy with artists. Similarly, we see that he is trying to give the impression of being an art-lover (aesthete) when he describes the painting with the words of an art- critic – “the depth and passion in the earnest glance…… reproduce the faint half-flush that fades along the throat…” Then he boasts about his art of speaking by indirectly saying that he doesn’t have the skill of saying small things in the proper manner. But that is another example of his egotism. He claims that he is such a powerful man that no one has dared to ask him about the red spot on the cheek of the duchess. But we see that he is such a mean, evil-minded, jealous and cynical man who thinks that if his wife looks at or smiles at visitors and any other males, it is because of her sexual excitement with them: he guesses that the painter’s small- talk had caused the spot of joy” to appear on her cheek! Then he boasts about his ‘nine hundred years old name, and complains that the duchess did not give special regards to that. With normal people, that doesn’t count in a marital relationship, because everyone’s husband is a husband first of all and it is not necessary to address him by his status-name. He says that she used to bring the red spot of joy on her cheek not only he gave a ‘favorable’ (look) on her breast, but also when she saw any common person object or event. We know that some young girls’ cheeks become red due to the sun, due to shyness, anger, or even without any reason when they simply smile or talk. The duke is a shameless tyrant who cannot think of anything positive; most probably because he is evil minded himself. He says that “her looks went everywhere”, that she would thank and appreciate anything or anyone, that she was too easily impressed, and that she used to smile at anyone who passed by her. We never find any hint that the duchess was morally guilty of the kinds of accusations he is making against her; if she was actually bad, this shameless man would have said it no unclear words. No one will be ever convinced that to smile, to thank, to be interested, to be shy, or to talk to people is such a crime, or immorality. No one will believe that a wife should look only at her husband, except in societies that believe that all women are naturally evil! In fact, in societies which do injustice to women, men are usually corrupted, evil and unjust. The duke is a symbol of tyranny and the demoniac male not only in Renaissance Italy, but in all societies of all times and place.
At the climax of the dramatic poem, the Duke reveals that he had killed his previous wife, the duchess painted on the wall. He says that he did not want to stoop (bend low) before her to say that she should not smile at other people, should not get impressed by ordinary people and things, should not blush, and should behave in the proper ways to ‘demonstrate the great name of her husband! He adds that he didn’t have the skill of speech and that she would not understand him; but even if he had it and she could understand him, he would not stop before just a wife to tell her what he didn’t like. This also further reveals his true character. Then he says, even without caring what he is saying, that he “gave orders” to stop all her smiles together. That means he gave orders to kill her. The murder of his own wife and the way he carelessly takes, is shocking and disgusting. The duke is a perfect collection of all devilish qualities, the misuse of power and the extreme oppression and injustice.
There are also some dramatic actions in the poem, in the beginning, the duke tells the other man to sit down and look at the picture. Towards the end of the poem, he tells him to stand up: “Will it please you rise?” We also guess other things that the characters must be doing. As the duke is saying all the nasty things about his own wife, the other man seems to try to leave the place! But the duke tells him to wait: ‘Nay, we’ll go down together, sir”. The next moment, we find that he is making the man wait just to give another piece of boasting! He points to a statue and tells his guest that it is his own statue in the form of god Neptune training the sea horse. This also symbolizes this demand for a wife like a ‘trained’ horse. The poem ends with the duke still talking about himself as a great man and a lover of art.
Shrestha, Roma. "My Last Duchess by Robert Browning: Summary." BachelorandMaster, 16 Feb. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/my-last-duchess.html.