“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning comes from an actual historical incident. In the sixteenth century Italy, Duke Ferrara married fourteen year-old Lucrezia, who died within two years. The Duke courted and soon married someone else. The Duke is believed to have poisoned his wife so that he could marry the other girl.
The speaker in the poem is the Duke himself. His speech is highly structured. Control is a part of his personality, so as he speaks, it is obvious that Browning makes the reader believe that the Duke chooses his words carefully. He would be considered an unreliable narrator. He tells only his side of the story. As the poem progresses, it becomes obvious that the Duke has lost touch with reality.
The setting for the poem is Italy in the sixteenth century. The specific setting is the palace of the Duke in a gallery which contains his private collection.
Browning described this poem as a “dramatic lyric.” Today, the poem would be called a dramatic monologue because the Duke does all of the speaking. The poem is written with rhymed couplets. The rhyme scheme would be AABBCCDD, and so on. With this pattern, Browning demonstrated the control of the Duke over and his viciousness towards his late wife.
The primary themes of the story connect together through the personality of the Duke. Browning intended to illustrate the power that was available to the Duke in the time period. His control included the complete dominance of his wife. She was his possession as much as his lands were.
To add to this theme, the duke is controlled by his jealousy concerning his wife’s attention to anyone other than himself. He does not like the artist giving his wife such a smile with a blush. He wonders about the person that she is looking at and giving attention to. Every smile and blush unless it is for him drives him to distraction. He is so upset by her behavior that the only way to fix the situation was to murder his Duchess.
The Duke brings a servant of a Count up to his private gallery to show him the picture of his last Duchess. The picture portrays a beautiful young woman with a smile and blush on her face. The Duke was told that the artist asked for her to smile for the picture.
- The Duke begins to criticize his wife.
- She smiles for someone else in the picture.
- She was too easily made happy and looked around too much.
- She thanked people for gifts much the same as she thanked her husband.
- She did not appreciate the respected aristocratic name that he had given her by marrying her.
- She did not respond to his lessons in behavior nor listen to his commands to stop smiling.
The Duke continues on to say that he stopped the smiling. In her picture, she looks as if she were alive.
And if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse…
He asks the man to accompany him back downstairs. On the way out, he brags to the man about a statue that was built for him. The reader learns that the Duke is courting the Count’s daughter, hoping to marry her. He does not care about the dowry, just the daughter.
This is an interesting poem which illustrates the strange behavior of the Duke who has obviously had his wife killed for insane reasons. The overall effect of the poem comes from the man who does not hesitate to kill his wife because she displayed her joy of life.