Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304
Robert Browning did not write outstanding tragedies, primarily because the techniques which he used so well in his sophisticated poetry obscured the action. His love of soliloquy, for example, renders his plays somewhat slow moving and tedious. His command of the language certainly enabled him to explore the most intense emotions, yet that very strength tended to hinder the dramatic movement. In no way an exception, A BLOT IN THE ’SCUTCHEON, although containing some effective scenes and a considerable amount of romantic action, including a duel, a suicide, and the tragic death of the heroine, is best viewed as an investigation of character and motive.
Thorold, Earl Tresham, represents the Victorian aristocrat, who in his dedication to the family honor is prepared to sacrifice the feelings of his sister, Mildred. Mildred herself, tyrannized by the idea of respectability, also helps bring about the tragedy by refusing to pretend to virginity by appearing at the altar in a white wedding gown with Henry, Earl Mertoun. Henry invites his own death by refusing to defend his life because he has been caught in a compromising situation. The three separate ideas of honor, conceived to venerate outmoded social mores, all combine to lead to the senseless tragedy.
Ironically, A BLOT IN THE ’SCUTCHEON details a situation not unlike one in which Browning was to discover himself two years later with Elizabeth Barrett. Forbidden to marry by her domineering father, he and Elizabeth were forced to wed secretly and live in Italian exile. Mr. Barrett died twelve years later, only four years before Elizabeth herself died, never having been forgiven for her own “blot” in the ’scutcheon. From this incident it becomes clear that the Victorian themes of domestic tyranny and the power of respectability were not confined to literature, but dominated the entire mentality of bourgeois society.
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