Robert Browning wrote “My Last Duchess” inspired by a real event in Italian history. A Duke in the sixteenth century married a young girl at the age of fourteen. The young wife died at the age of seventeen under very suspicious circumstances. Her husband immediately courted and married another lady.
The point of view is first person with the main character serving as the narrator. The entire poem is a dramatic monologue with the Duke who is an arrogant, overtly murderous personality which makes him an unreliable narrator.
The poem is written in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets. The lines are paired in rhymed couplets. Browning himself labeled the poem “a dramatic lyric.”
Unlike many lyric poems, the setting is in sixteenth century Italy. The immediate setting is a private art gallery of the Duke of Ferrara who lives in a lavish palace with fabulous art objects.
Browning creates an atmosphere of a sinister mystery. As the poem moves toward the end, the mood becomes more evil and malevolent.
The Duke tells the visiting Count’s representative that the picture that he is showing him is available only to a select few. The portrait is kept covered. The picture is of the Duke’s last wife. This is clearly his private gallery, and as always, the Duke is in complete control.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive, I call
That piece a wonder, now…
The Duke is a rich, powerful aristocratic bully. His power has corrupted him so much that if something does not go his way, he eradicates it. In order to tell his story, the Duke asks the man to sit down and look at the picture of a lady who is standing. The artist was well-known for his skill. The Duke goes into a tirade about all the “supposed” wrongs that his poor wife committed against him.
Apparently, the Duke obsesses about the look on the lady’s face. He describes her cheek as having a "spot of joy" on it which is probably a slight blush of pleasure. What aggravates the Duke is that the blush should only have been for him.
What has she done wrong?
- Other men gave his wife compliments or do sweet things for her.
- The Duchess made a decision to blush at the artist.
- She is too easily made happy or too easily impressed.
- She likes everything that she looks at, and she looks at everything.
- She thanked the Duke just the same as if she were looking at a sunset or her white mule.
- She may be a little flirtatious.
- She thanked other people the same way that she thanked her husband for his gift of a prestigious, powerful name.
If the Duke tried to talk to her about these problems, he would have been stooping to her level and he stoops for no one.
The Duchess did smile at him, but she smiled at everyone. Further she was kind to everyone. Finally, the Duke ordered the smiling to stop, and it did. The lady is not his Duchess anymore.
He asks the listener to stand and accompany him downstairs to meet the other guests. Then the reader learns who the man is and his purpose for being with the Duke. The Duke is courting the Count’s beautiful daughter to marry her With the Count’s wealth the Duke expects a good dowry.
The poem does not answer all of the questions that come to mind for the reader. Murder, jealousy, insanity, obsession—these are the topics that Browning introduced to his pompous readers.