A key – if not THE key – to understanding Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess lies with the word that precedes the text: Ferrara. Ferrara was a Renaissance-era Italian city within the boundaries of which congregated many important figures of that era. As the title of the poem, or monologue, is “My Last Duchess,” it stands to reason that the narrator is a duke, and it is widely assumed that the duke in question was a reference to the real-life Duke of Ferrara, who married a 14-year-old girl who died at 17 years of age. The suggestion widely believed is that the duke is addressing the father of his next presumed wife, and is discussing with this guest his previous wife, the now-deceased girl whose painting is now kept concealed behind a curtain (“The curtain I have drawn for you”) and shown only on special occasions, for example, the meeting dedicated to securing a father’s consent to his daughter’s marriage. There is, though, precious little in My Last Duchess to definitively identify the precise nature of this monologue – at least until its final lines. The monologue ends with the speaker’s comments drawing to a close, the visitor preparing to depart. The clue, however, is presented in the author’s choice of words:
There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object.
The duke’s reference to a dowry suggests the nature of the meeting. He is discussing with the father of the woman he hopes to marry next the conditions under which such an arrangement will be concluded. Dowries, including in Victorian-era England, were monetary or otherwise valuable gifts from the bride’s family to the marriage as a means of helping young couples begin their life together. This passage in Browning’s monologue clearly indicates that the duke is seeking the approval of his visitor for the latter’s daughter’s hand in marriage.