What is the poem "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning about?

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"My Last Duchess" is a dramatic monologue written by Robert Browning. That means that one person is speaking for the entire poem. In this case, the speaker is Duke Ferrara. Although there was a historical duke that Browning had in mind, Aphonso II, who lived in the second half of the 16th century in Italy, Browning was attempting to portray a way of life rather than a specific person.

The Duke is speaking to the emissary of a Count who is there to negotiate the dowry for the woman the Duke plans to marry and make his next duchess. The Count will pay a sum of money, which the Duke will have to agree on, so that the Duke will marry his daughter. As the poem begins, Ferrara is showing the portrait of his "last Duchess" to the emissary. He explains that he commissioned the painting and that only he pulls back the curtain that normally covers it. He then begins to speak of the Duchess. Her portrait shows a "spot of joy" in her cheeks, but rather than pleasing the Duke, it causes him to think about the things that bothered him about his former wife. The reader understands that the things that bothered the Duke were minor; the Duke reveals his desire for control and his jealousy as he speaks.

She was a woman who enjoyed everything and showed her pleasure toward things and people, but this aggravated the Duke because he thought she should gain greater pleasure from being his wife than from anything else. He admits that he could have instructed his wife on how to stop aggravating him, but he says that would be "stooping," that is, it would be beneath him to have to explain to his wife what he wanted. She was supposed to know. He then states that he "gave commands. Then all smiles stopped together." Readers, and the emissary as well, assume this means the Duke had his wife executed. Upon hearing this, the emissary tries to rush down the stairs to get away from the Duke, but Ferrara says, "Nay, we'll go together down, Sir." Finally, he points out a statue of "Neptune ... taming a seahorse," which he had commissioned. The statue is symbolic: It points to the fact that Ferrara believes he is a god and can control others, especially his wife.

To understand a dramatic monologue, especially one by Robert Browning, it is necessary to pay attention to what is not said as well as to what is said. By reading between the lines, you will be able to apprehend the poet's meaning.