How is the poem "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?
A dramatic monologue is a poem in which a speaker addresses another person who does not answer back. This is why it is a monologue rather than a dialogue. In the course of his speech, the speaker reveals aspects of his personality or situation that he might not be aware of or might prefer to keep hidden.
"My Last Duchess" is a classic example of a dramatic monologue. The duke addresses an emissary who has come to arrange his next marriage. He speaks to him about his dead wife, the "last duchess" of the title. While the duke obviously wants to impress this man, he reveals aspects of his character that are less than flattering.
For instance, he shows himself to have been jealous, narcissistic, and controlling in his relationship with his now dead wife. As they gaze at her portrait, the Duke complains that she would dare to smile at other people and to be happy at simple pleasures. He couldn't bear that she didn't focus exclusively on him, saying:
She hadA heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,Too easily impressed; she liked whate’erShe looked on, and her looks went everywhere.Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,The dropping of the daylight in the West,The bough of cherries some officious foolBroke in the orchard for her
perhapsFra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle lapsOver my lady’s wrist too much,” or “PaintMust never hope to reproduce the faintHalf-flush that dies along her throat.”
Browning's poem is an excellent example of a dramatic monologue. It is a monologue because the entire poem consists of the words spoken by a single voice, Duke Ferrara's. It is dramatic because it contains the elements of drama, primarily characters, a narrative, physical action, and a physical setting. Through these devices of drama, the poem becomes a scene that could be staged with actors and props.
In the poem, the Duke speaks to another person, perhaps an emissary from the family of his next wife. The listener does not interrupt, but his presence is felt in the poem as the Duke refers to him as "you" and "sir" and offers him a chair so that he may sit and look at the portrait of the Duke's former wife. At the conclusion of his comments, the Duke directs his visitor to leave his seat and move on:
Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir.
As they descend, the Duke points out a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea horse, symbolic of his relationship with his former wife.
These physical actions (sitting and leaving) and the props (the guest's chair, the portrait of the Duchess, and the bronze statue) make it possible for the reader to visualize the scene as if it were played out upon a stage.
Throughout the Duke's monologue, the story develops, and his character, as well as the Duchess's, is revealed. Her fate at his hands is not established precisely, but the conclusion of the poem (and the story) implies that his next Duchess will be marrying a man who misrepresents himself, concealing the arrogance and cruelty of his nature.