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"My Last Duchess" is one of Robert Browning dramatic monologues. He invented this form and excelled in it. His dramatic monologues have had a strong influence on literature, not only in poetry but in fiction in which the narrator reveals more than he is aware of telling. "My Last Duchess" is Browning's best-known and most frequently anthologized poem of this type, but he wrote a number of other dramatic monologues which are equally good. These include: "Andrea del Sarto" and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church." In these monologues the speaker unwittingly reveals his character and truths he generally keeps hidden. In "My Last Duchess," the Duke, who is showing a visitor some of his art collection, reveals himself as a cruel, vain, selfish, greedy man who may be able to appreciate art but cannot see or understand the beauty that exists in reality, a beauty from which art is derived. He had a beautiful, charming wife, but he had her murdered because she did not have the arrogant aristocratic temperament he wanted in a wife. She was "his last duchess." Now he is shopping for another duchess the way he might be bargaining for another painting or statue to add to his collection. The reader feels sorry for whatever young woman he marries next.
Browning's "My Last Duchess" is partly an important poem because of its unusual point of view. The poem is told using first person, which means that the readers should be able to closely access the narrator (the Duke) and his thoughts. However, despite the fact that the poem uses first person, we eventually learn that the poem is only telling part of the story, and that the Duke is perhaps not the most reliable narrator. Critics typically discuss the ways that Browning brilliantly layers complex hidden meanings beneath the surface of the Duke's perspective. Browning carefully crafts the poem so that, while the Duke says one thing, readers can infer multiple other meanings.
Critics also praise this poem for being historically accurate in its depiction of the Duke as a power-hungry, arrogant, and misogynistic aristocrat. During a time when women had much less power and freedom than they do now, Browning gives us a poem that could be seen as a protest against domestic abuse, the mistreatment of women, and the abuse of power against those with less power and less rights.
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