What happens in My Last Duchess?

In “My Last Duchess,” the Duke addresses an emissary of the Count whose daughter the Duke intends to marry. He shows the emissary a portrait of his first wife (the titular "last duchess"). In the process, the Duke reveals some unpleasant truths about himself.

“My Last Duchess” summary key points:

  • The Duke shows the commissioned painting of his first wife. The painting is kept hidden behind a curtain that is drawn aside only by the Duke.
  • The Duke tells the envoy the tale of his first wife. She was equally pleased by everything and by everybody; her pleasure had a passionate earnestness to it.
  • The Duke's story ends with his ambiguous statement that he "gave orders" resulting in his wife's ultimate silence. This suggests she was murdered.
  • The Duke discusses his demands for a dowry and his statue of the god Neptune taming a fragile, innocent seahorse.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“My Last Duchess” is probably Browning’s most popular and most anthologized poem. The poem first appeared in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics, which is contained in Bells and Pomegranates (1841-1846). Perhaps the major reason for the fame of “My Last Duchess” is that it is probably the finest example of Browning’s dramatic monologue. In it, he paints a devastating self-portrait of royalty, a portrait that doubtless reveals more of the duke’s personality than Ferrara intends. In fact, the irony is profound, for with each word spoken in an attempt to criticize his last duchess, the duke ironically reveals his utterly detestable nature and how far he is from seeing it himself.

Before the subtleties of “My Last Duchess” can be grasped, the basic elements of this dramatic monologue must be understood. The only speaker is the Duke of Ferrara. The listener, who, offstage, asks about the smile of the last duchess in the portrait, is silent during the entire poem. The listener is the emissary of a count and is helping to negotiate a marriage between the count’s daughter and the duke. The time is probably the Italian Renaissance, though Browning does not so specify. The location is the duke’s palace, probably upstairs in some art gallery, since the duke points to two nearby art objects. The two men are about to join the “company below” (line 47), so the fifty-six lines of the poem represent the end of the duke’s negotiating, his final terms.

Since the thrust of a Browning dramatic monologue is psychological self-characterization, what kind of man does the duke reveal himself to be? Surely, he is a very jealous man. He brags that he has had the duchess’s portrait made by Fra Pandolf. Why would he hire a monk, obviously noted for his sacred art, to paint a secular portrait? The duke admits, “’twas not/ Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (lines 13-15). Then he notes that “perhaps/ Fra Pandolf chanced to say” (lines 15-16) and provides two exact quotations. The suggestion is strong that he observed the whole enterprise. He gave Fra Pandolf only a day to finish the expensive commissioned art. Pandolf is a painter so notable that the duke drops the artist’s name. Probably, he chose Pandolf because, as a man of the cloth, the good brother would have taken a vow of chastity. Yet the duke’s jealousy was so powerful that he observed this chaste painter with his wife in order to be sure. Later, the duke implies that the duchess was the kind of woman who had to be watched, for she had a heart “too easily impressed” (line 23), and “her looks went everywhere” (line 24). Yet the evidence that he uses to corroborate this charge—her love of sunsets, the cherry bough with which she was presented, her pet white mule—suggests only that she was a natural woman who preferred the simple pleasures.

The duke’s pride and selfishness are also revealed. He is very proud of his family name, for, as he describes his marriage to his last duchess, he states that he gave her “My gift of a...

(The entire section is 2,564 words.)