The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Underneath the title “My Last Duchess” is the name Ferrara, and the poem’s sole speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, a character based in part on Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara (in Italy) in the sixteenth century. Alfonso’s wife, a young girl, died in 1561, and Alfonso used an agent to negotiate a second marriage to the niece of the Count of Tyrol.
In Robert Browning’s poem, the Duke of Ferrara speaks to an agent representing the count. The duke begins by referring to “my last Duchess,” his first wife, as he draws open a curtain to display a portrait of her which is hanging on the wall. She looks “alive,” and the duke attributes this to the skill of the painter, Frà Pandolf. After saying that he alone opens the curtain, the duke promptly begins a catalog of complaints about the way his wife had acted.
The joyous blush on her cheek that can be seen in the portrait was a result, the duke says, of her reaction to Frà Pandolf’s compliments about her beauty. The duke blames his late wife for smiling back at Frà Pandolf, for being courteous to everyone she encountered, for enjoying life too much. She failed to appreciate his name, which can be traced back nine hundred years, and she failed to see him as superior to others. The duke would not condescend to correct her attitude. She should have known better, he says, and “I choose/ Never to stoop.”
The final characterization the duke gives of his former duchess reveals...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The poem is a dramatic monologue, a form that Browning used and perfected in many of his works. In a monologue, one person is the sole speaker, and often there is a specific listener or listeners; here, the listener is the count’s agent, through whom the Duke of Ferrara is arranging the proposed marriage to a second duchess. The reader must work through the words of the speaker to discover his true character and the attitude of the poet toward the character. The poem is “dramatic” in the sense that it is like a drama, a play, in which one character speaks to another, and there is a sense of action and movement as on stage.
The duke claims that he does not have skill in speech, but his monologue is a masterpiece of subtle rhetoric. While supposedly entertaining the count’s agent as his guest by showing him the portrait, the duke by implication explains his requirements for his new wife. His last duchess, according to his version of her, had a heart “too soon made glad” by such things as watching a sunset or riding her white mule around the terrace, and she should not have responded with pleasure to anything or anyone but the duke himself. Browning allows the reader to infer what kind of man the duke is by piecing together the past and present situation. A basic device used throughout the poem is irony. Instead of seeing an unfaithful wife as the duke pictures her, the reader sees the jealous and egotistical mind of the duke himself. The duke seems to assume that the agent will follow the logic of why he commanded that his duchess be eliminated, and he lets the agent know how easily...
(The entire section is 655 words.)