Robert Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" is a splendid example of the irony that a poet can achieve within the format of the dramatic monologue, a poetic form in which there is only one speaker. When there is only one speaker, we necessarily have to weigh carefully what he or she is telling us, and we often have to "read between the lines" in keeping an objective perspective on the story or incidents that the speaker describes to us. We can gather from this poem's setting, "Ferrara," a town in Italy, as well as from the speaker's reference to his "last Duchess," that the speaker in this poem is the Duke of Ferrara. Twentieth-century scholars have found a viable prototype upon whom Browning may have based this characterization in the figure of Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the sixteenth century, and whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. But what kind of person is this Duke, and what exactly is the story of his last duchess? To find out, let's take a closer look at what he tells us.
First of all, it is evident that the Duke is speaking to someone, and that he is showing his auditor a painting. "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall," he says, and then explains that the painter, Fra Pandolf, "worked busily a day, and there she stands." The Duke then describes the usual reaction that people have to viewing this painting—a reaction specifically to the Duchess' "earnest glance." He says that strangers often turn to him as if to ask "How such a glance came there," and then tells his auditor, "so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus." But has his auditor actually asked the Duke a question, or is the Duke simply making an assumption, based upon a look on his guest's face, that he is reacting to the painting as every other viewer has reacted to it? If he is jumping to a conclusion in the case of this latest viewer, then how do we know that he is right about other people's reactions to the painting? Perhaps he sees in other people's looks what he wants to see. We will need to remember this possible aspect of the Duke's character as we continue to listen to his story.
Next the Duke elaborates on his last Duchess' glance in the portrait, and calls it a "spot of joy." But it was not his presence only that caused her to smile in such a way, he says. The painter, Fra Pan-dolf, may have said anything from the simple " 'Her mantle laps / Over my lady's wrist too much,'" to the much more flattering " 'Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Half-flush that dies along her throat,'" and the lady's reaction would be this same, blushing "spot of joy." The Duke then tells us more about his lady's likes. She had a heart "too soon made glad," he says, and she was too easily pleased by everything she looked on. "Sir, 'twas all one!" he says to his listener, listing the things that pleased her: the Duke's own favor, a beautiful sunset in the west, a bough of ripe cherries from the orchard, a white mule she loved to ride—each of these things she enjoyed to the same degree, and each brought the same blush of pleasure to her cheek.
Finally we get to the heart of the Duke's problem with his former wife. She thanked people who pleased her, which was all well and good in theory, but she thanked them all with equal affection, "as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody's gift.'-' The Duke seems to have been offended that she did not single him out among the others who pleased her, and underrated his gift of a well-established name and proud family heritage. She smiled, he says, whenever he passed her, "but who passed without / Much the same smile?" And how did the Duke react to this? "Who'd stoop to blame / This sort of trifling?" he asks his auditor. The whole business is beneath him. Even if he had "skill / In speech," it would be stooping to address such a situation, and he tells his listener that he indeed does not have skill in speech. This statement is ironic, for the...
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