Discuss how the poem reflects social hierarchy and patriarchal views.

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess" is set in Italy, probably in the 1500s. It exhibits a social hierarchy that was in place then and patriarchal views that were common not only then, but also in Victorian England, when Browning wrote the piece. Regarding social hierarchy, we see characters in the poem who fall into various strata. At the top, we have Duke Ferrara, the speaker in the poem. He is in the process of negotiating a marriage between himself and the daughter of an unnamed Count. In ranks of nobility, a Duke ranks highest, followed by Marquess, Count, Viscount, Baron, and Baronet. The Count would need to pay a generous dowry for the Duke to marry beneath himself in this way, thus Ferrara's reference to "the Count, you master's, known munificence." The other characters in the poem--the Count's servant to whom Ferrara is speaking, the last Duchess, and the Count's daughter--would be somewhat equal on the social scale. Although the women are from noble lines and seem to have privileges, in reality they are nothing more than property that can be bought and sold, which is happening here. The servant, then, although he is not nobility, actually has more rights of self-determination than the noblewomen. 

Patriarchal views are rife in the poem. As previously mentioned, the ability of a father to "sell" his daughter via marriage leaves no room for a woman's choice. Selling isn't even the right term, for the father must pay the future husband a dowry to take on the responsibility of his daughter for the rest of her life. The absolute control Ferrara wielded over his last Duchess is the sobering and appalling theme of this poem. He felt he should be able to control whom she spoke to, what she looked at, and even what made her blush. Because she did not yield to his control, he did away with her. Although it isn't explicitly stated and Browning, probably facetiously, later gave a different interpretation, most readers assume that Ferrara murdered his last Duchess. That she even knew she was displeasing her husband is unlikely. He tells the Count's servant that he felt he was above giving her lessons in proper behavior. She should have known the proper role of a wife--to look only to her husband's wants and needs and never to her own or others'. Reading between the lines, we get a picture of a young woman who was kind, expressive, and innocent. The attitude and actions of Ferrara and anyone else who knew of the situation and didn't oppose it represent the far extreme on the spectrum of patriarchal dominance. We get one glimmer that not everyone functions under that extreme view. The servant appears to want to make a mad dash away from the Duke once he realizes the fate of the last Duchess, but the Duke restrains him, saying, "Nay, we'll go together down, sir." Finally, the Duke points out a sculpture of Neptune taming a sea horse. This is symbolic of the unassailable patriarchal rule Ferrara embraces: His last Duchess (and any future Duchess) must be as submissive to and easily controlled by him as a seahorse would be to Neptune, the god of the sea.