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Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" is a dramatic monologue that begins in the middle of a conversation between the duke and another individual. We can gather from the beginning that the speaker is looking at and discussing with another the picture of his late wife
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive
This situation immediately provokes questions from the reader: What happened to the Duchess? What caused her death? As the speaker continues to give details about the painting, details about her personality are also revealed to us. We learn that she was lively, humble, joyous, kind, and responsive to others. Sympathy for this young woman who died is aroused.
But we also detect hostility in the speaker's voice. He is criticizing his late wife for what seems to be innocent behavior. He seems proud and overbearing, demanding respect for his "nine-hundred-years-old name." He seems to be possessive and jealous if she found pleasure in people or things apart from him.
Then, the hammer falls! We gather with shock that the Duke had had his wife killed because she did not please him:
This grew: I gave commands;
Than all smiles stopped together.
Here the reader is fully engaged in the text. We want to know why the Duke is revealing such a horrendous act and for what purpose. The final lines seal our verdict of the Duke. We see that the story of his last wife was deliberately told and calculated as a warning to the emissary of his betrothed's family as to how his new bride should act. The ending is chilling. The Duke, because of his wealth and name, was able to murder with impunity, and his new bride will have no choice but to conform to his tyranny. The details of the poem are arranged to provoke curiosity, create suspense, and convey a lasting impression of a powerful man in a patriarchal society.
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