Robert Browning, through dramatic monologue, writes about a duke who is talking about his deceased wife (the duchess) to a visitor. Describe why the duke feels wronged by his last duchess and how this affects their relationship.
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It's helpful to understand, when you read and analyze this poem, that Browning based it on a true story. The duke in question is Alfonso II of Ferrara, Italy, of a family known for their multi-generational veneration of art (and their massive, priceless collections). They were very powerful. This particular duke's wife, Lucrezia (Medici), died in 1561; historians suspect foul play.
So what we have in Browning's version--which is a ficionalized dramatic version of the incident, obviously--is a wealthy, powerful...sociopath. Lucrezia disappointed him because she was (apparently) a light-hearted, happy person ("Sir, ‘t was not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek" (13-15). She enjoyed life and smiled a lot, unaware that her husband expected her to preserve all her happiness and smiles for him alone. When a man complimented her, she reacted like any woman would: she smiled and enjoyed the compliment:
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
The duke, didn't mind if she smiled at other men--or so he says--but the final straw is that she behaved "as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift." This is the insufferable insult to him. She is a Medici, a rising family to be sure, but he is old aristocracy, and she should have been forever thankful that he stooped so low as to marry her.
He goes on to say that he could have "lessoned" her--and his approach gives some indication of his character, as he says he might say, "Just this / Or that in you disgusts me." This is how he would speak to his wife?! But he didn't. To even tell her what she was doing wrong, in his opinion, would be to lower himself, and he chooses "never to stoop."
The happier she was, the more disgusted and angry he became, until "I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together," thus ending their short marriage (Lucrezia married at 13 and died at 17).
What's truly creepy about this poem is that the duke is speaking with a man who is there to petition him to marry his daughter. Think about it. ;)
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