A major theme of the poem is moral decay. Although this is seen most obviously in the hypocritical and worldly Bishop, similar immorality is also suggested in the greedy and untrustworthy young men, in the envious and conniving Gandolf, in the material wealth of the churches, and in the implication that the Pope himself would welcome new villas to add to his riches. The total effect indicts the dominant Renaissance religious institution as corrupt and spiritually dead.
A bishop should guide his flock and be exemplary in Christian compassion and charity. This bishop, however, devotes himself to personal ambition, wealth, and pleasures. Rather than chastity, poverty, and obedience to God’s will, he relishes his memories of his mistress and the thought that Gandolf envied him. His villas and his indulgent luxuries show that he is no follower of Saint Praxed, who gave all she had to the poor. Even now, on his deathbed, rather than repenting his sins and thinking of God’s judgment, the Bishop concerns himself only with his earthly remains. Given the example he has set, it is no wonder that he suspects that his nephews/sons will not fulfill his instructions.
The Bishop’s closest human tie seems to be his hostile rivalry with Gandolf, which he assumes will continue after death; Gandolf will know the Bishop’s tomb is superior to his and will still envy him. The fact that the Bishop is a learned man who has had many privileges makes his attitude and actions especially reprehensible. To him, the Church has meant power, material goods, and sensual stimulation. In a particularly gross perversion of the central Church doctrine of transubstantiation (Holy Communion), he says that from his tomb he will “hear the blessed mutter of the mass,/ And see God made and eaten all day long.”
The poem is one of Browning’s finest of many dramatic monologues, and Browning has again created a character whom readers love to hate. The poet has also given readers a means of seeing beyond the surface. The judgment of the Bishop is complicated by one’s acquaintance with him. The reader recognizes that it is only because of his dying haziness that he reveals himself, that the nephews/sons will betray his dying wishes, and that the Bishop is only following the example of other ecclesiastics.
This literary example of moral corruption implies the need for change both in institutions and in individuals. Part of the solution is contained in the poem itself—the idea that man’s years are short, and the material things of this world are less important than creating a worthy soul.