Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” is his best-known and most frequently anthologized poem. What makes it so emotionally effective is the strong contrast between the speaker and the subject of his monologue. The speaker is a thoroughly loathsome man, while his last duchess was obviously not only a beautiful but a loving and lovable young woman. The woman and the man are like Beauty and the Beast.
The arrogant Duke, who had the exceedingly bad taste to show a portrait of his dead wife to the representative of the man whose daughter he was planning to marry, reveals his character in everything he says--but Browning has added a peculiar touch which serves to characterize the Duke even more effectively than the contents of his monologue. That is to be found in the open couplets which are so deliberately ragged, staggered, awkward, discordant and forced that they serve as proof of the Duke’s own admission that he has no skill in speech and highlight his ignorance, insensitivity and vulgarity. Here are a few examples:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E’en then would be some stooping, and I choose
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
It the entire poem is read with particular attention to the open couplets, the calculated badness of the meter and the rhymes becomes strikingly obvious.
The Duke’s monologue fails to explain exactly what it was he found wrong with his lovely young wife. But the evidence he gives against himself seems to lead to the conclusion that he wanted to get rid of her because she could not be like him—which would have been the last thing she could have done and the last thing that would ever have occurred to her.
Shakespeare in King Lear has the Duke of Albany make the exceedingly astute observation that “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves.” That is the case with Browning’s proud, greedy, sadistic, insensitive, and ignorant Duke.
As the Duke conducts his guest along and reveals the portrait of his last Duchess, the breathlessness of his speech betrays his feelings; in addition, his ornate imagery also reveals his jealousy as, for instance, he notes the "half-flush that dies along her throat," possessiveness, and domineering nature.
In the beginning of the dramatic monolgue, the Duke attempts a blase attitude in pointing out the portrait of his last wife; however, his tone quickly changes as he unknowingly displays his "green-eyed" monstrous feelings in alluding to "that spot/Of joy into the Duchess' cheek." Further, Browning's use of dashes indicates a certain breathless speech on the part of the Duke:
A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she like wate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one!....
Finally, after disclosing his jealousy, the Duke displays his arrogance and retributive jealousy with his words, "I gave commands"; afterwards, he points to the statue of Neptune that he has commissioned and had cast in bronze for him, indicating his excessive pride.
The poem's narrator shows his power-hungry and self-important attitude by his actions(he stops his visitor on the staircase at the portrait, and later by the statue that Claus of Innsbruck cast for him), his words ("since none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you but I") and his disdain of the duchess' own open personality. Also, by giving his lineage more importance than genuine gifts, and by warning the ambassador to keep his master's promise of "ample dowry, he shows the kind of treatment the new duchess can expect." Every line displays his arrogance, his cruelty, and his controlling personality. The ambassador will return with a very negative assessment of the Duke. The entire poem is in the ironic mode (what goes out as "A" comes back as non-A)-- the reader perceives the speaker differently from the intention.