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...
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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...
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Browning's poem, which is set in Renaissance Italy, may tell us less about the Renaissance itself than about Victorian views toward the period. The incident the poem dramatizes comes from the life of Alfonso II, a nobleman of Spanish origin who was Duke of Ferrara in Italy during the sixteenth century. Alfonso's first wife was Lucrezia, a member of the Italian Borgia family and the daughter of a man who later became pope. Although she died only three years into the marriage—to be replaced, as the poem suggests, by the daughter of the Count of Tyrol—Lucrezia transformed the court of Ferrara into a gathering place for Renaissance artists, including the famous Venetian painter Titian. As a result, Ferrara became exemplary of the aesthetic awakening that was taking place throughout Italy. The term Renaissance, from the French word, actually means "rebirth," and the time to which it refers is characterized by cultural and intellectual developments as much as by political events. During the Renaissance, which is generally defined as the period 1350 to 1700, Europeans experienced the resurrection of classical Greek and Roman ideals that had remained dormant since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Artists and thinkers of the Renaissance believed that classical art, science, philosophy, and literature had been lost during the "dark ages" that...
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Compare and Contrast
1842: English social reformer Edwin Chadwick publishes "Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain." The report, which exposes the poor conditions and high disease rate among England's factory workers, shocks the public and raises the need for reform.
Today: While the living conditions of workers in advanced nations remain acceptable, annual United Nations reports on conditions in Third World countries show workers experience ongoing poverty, disease, and occupational danger.
1843: A British force of 2,800 men under Sir Charles Napier defeats a 30,000-man Baluch Army, forcing India's Muslim emirs of Sind to surrender their independence to the East India Company.
Today: Great Britain relinquishes Hong Kong, the jewel of its remaining Asian colonial possessions, to the Republic of China. To many, the event symbolizes the increasing transfer of European power to other parts of the world.
1846: After a series of crop failures, Parliament repeals the Corn Laws, reducing tariff duties on imported goods and opening the door to free trade.
Today: Britain's political debate centers on whether the country should relinquish the pound in favor of the Euro. The single multinational currency is favored by the European Union, which proposes to make Europe a single economic entity.
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Topics for Further Study
Much has been said about the Duke's account of his former wife's fate: "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together." What precisely does the Duke mean by these lines'? How can we tell? Why do you think Browning lets the Duke express the most dramatic part of his story in such brief and cryptic terms?
The Duke reproaches the late Duchess' character, but the reader might come away from the poem with an entirely different view of her. What can we tell about the Duchess from the Duke's own account of her? What does his description of her "shortcomings" tell us about her, and what do they tell us about the Duke?
Part of the poem's impact comes from the Duke's certainty that he has behaved properly. As an exercise, write a two-page monologue in which someone confesses to a crime for which he feels no remorse. Before you begin, consider your approach. What tone will your speaker adopt? What words will he choose to describe the crime itself? What justification can he offer for what he has done?
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What Do I Read Next?
Robert Browning: Robert Brainard Pearsall gives a substantive look at Browning's life and ideas, with continual reference to the poems themselves.
Maisie Ward presents a colorful and readable account of Browning's life and times in Robert Browning and His World.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
DeVane, William C, "The Virgin and the Dragon," in The Yale Review Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, September, 1947, pp. 33-46.
Friedland, Louis S., "Ferrara and My Last Duchess," in Studies in Philology Vol. 33, 1936, pp. 656-84.
Jerman, B. R., "Browning's Witless Duke," and Perrine, Laurence, "Browning's Shrewd Duke," in Publications of the Modern Language Association Vol. 72, June, 1957, pp. 488-93.
Langbaum, Robert, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition New York: Random House, 1963.
Langbaum, Robert, "The Dramatic Monologue: Sympathy versus Judgement," in The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, Random House, 1957, pp. 75-108.
Raymond, William O., "Browning's Casuists," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, October, 1940, pp. 641-66.
Ryals, Clyde de L., "Browning's Irony," in The Victorian Experience: The Poets, edited by Richard A. Levine, Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 23-46.
For Further Study
Atlick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, New York: Norton, 1973.
An overview of Victorian culture and history, presented thematically as a companion to the literature of the age.
McCarthy, Mary, The Stones of...
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