Critical Overview

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In general, critics have agreed on many basic interpretive issues about "My Last Duchess." William DeVane appears to voice common opinion when he characterizes the last Duchess as an obvious victim—as "outraged innocence" trapped in an age when "no god came to the rescue." Readers also easily agree that the dramatic monologue works ironically, presenting a meaning at odds with the speaker's intention: that is, the more the Duke says, the more he loses the reader's sympathy. Critics also concur that "My Last Duchess" exemplifies two important elements of Browning's talent for dramatic monologue: his ability to evoke the unconstrained reaction of a person in a particular situation or crisis and his use of history to provide the appropriate historical context.

In support of the first element, William 0. Raymond, writing for Studies in Philology suggests that "My Last Duchess" is a "masterpiece" because it "fuses character and incident, thought and emotion." Raymond, as other critics have also argued, suggests that the poet uses dramatic monologue to create or isolate a single moment in which the character reveals himself most starkly. In 1982 Clyde de L. Ryals extended this assertion a little further, arguing that the Duke not only "tells all" in this unguarded moment, but further that he "attempts to justify it," revealing even more of himself in the process.

Many readers have also noted that the poet creates an important historical context for the Duke, and the values he reveals, by setting the poem in Renaissance Italy. Values that might strike us today and may even have struck Browning's nineteenth-century readers as unacceptable—posses-siveness, haughtiness, love of power—could have been expected in a Renaissance aristocrat, thus accounting for at least some of the Duke's self-importance. Along these lines, several critics have praised the poem for its historical accuracy. Robert Langbaum, in his 1957 book The Poetry of Experience; The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, contends that "we accept the combination of villainy with taste and manners as a phenomenon of the Renaissance and of the old aristocratic order generally."

Langbaum introduces a less evident point when he asserts that Browning's poem takes the reader beyond acceptance to actual sympathy with or admiration for the Duke. Langbaum acknowledges that the Duchess is the first object of reader sympathy—"no summary or paraphrase would indicate that condemnation is not our principle response"— but also proposes that the form of dramatic monologue disposes the reader to suspend moral judgement and possibly to identify with the Duke. Not only do we admire the Duke's power and taste, according to Langbaum, but we also have no choice but to be "overwhelmed" by his speech, just as the envoy is. Ryals echoes this reading in 1982 when he contends that, because the Duke "is a fascinating character, bigger than life," the reader must hold "two conflicting views of the same individual."

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Essays and Criticism