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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 476 words.)