The Poem

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Underneath the title “My Last Duchess” is the name Ferrara, and the poem’s sole speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, a character based in part on Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara (in Italy) in the sixteenth century. Alfonso’s wife, a young girl, died in 1561, and Alfonso used an agent to negotiate a second marriage to the niece of the Count of Tyrol.

In Robert Browning’s poem, the Duke of Ferrara speaks to an agent representing the count. The duke begins by referring to “my last Duchess,” his first wife, as he draws open a curtain to display a portrait of her which is hanging on the wall. She looks “alive,” and the duke attributes this to the skill of the painter, Frà Pandolf. After saying that he alone opens the curtain, the duke promptly begins a catalog of complaints about the way his wife had acted.

The joyous blush on her cheek that can be seen in the portrait was a result, the duke says, of her reaction to Frà Pandolf’s compliments about her beauty. The duke blames his late wife for smiling back at Frà Pandolf, for being courteous to everyone she encountered, for enjoying life too much. She failed to appreciate his name, which can be traced back nine hundred years, and she failed to see him as superior to others. The duke would not condescend to correct her attitude. She should have known better, he says, and “I choose/ Never to stoop.”

The final characterization the duke gives of his former duchess reveals his obsessive possessiveness and jealousy. He acknowledges that she smiled when she saw him, but complains that she gave much the same smile to anyone else she saw. His next statement reveals that he caused her to be killed: “I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together.” He does not elaborate further. There is her portrait, he says, looking as if alive. The duke tells the agent that they will next go downstairs to meet others. Then, in not quite five lines, the duke refers directly to the proposed marriage arrangement. In the same suave tones he has used throughout, he suggests that because the count is so wealthy there should be no question about his providing an “ample” dowry for his daughter to bring to the marriage. The duke adds, however, that it is “his fair daughter’s self” that he wants.

As the duke and the count’s agent start down the stairs, the duke points out a bronze statue of Neptune taming a seahorse and notes that it was made especially for him by Claus of Innsbruck. Although this appears to be a change in subject, it summarizes the duke’s clear message to the agent. In addition to the wealth she must bring, the second wife, like the seahorse, must be “tamed” to her role as his duchess. The clear implication is that if she does not meet his requirements, she may well end up like the last duchess, “alive” only in a portrait.

Forms and Devices

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The poem is a dramatic monologue, a form that Browning used and perfected in many of his works. In a monologue, one person is the sole speaker, and often there is a specific listener or listeners; here, the listener is the count’s agent, through whom the Duke of Ferrara is arranging the proposed marriage to a second duchess. The reader must work through the words of the speaker to discover his true character and the attitude of the poet toward the character. The poem is “dramatic” in the sense that it is like a drama, a play, in which one character speaks to another, and there is a sense of action and movement as on stage.

The duke claims that he does not have skill in speech, but his monologue is a masterpiece of subtle rhetoric. While supposedly entertaining the count’s agent as his guest by showing him the portrait, the duke by implication explains his requirements for his new wife. His last duchess, according to his version of her, had a heart “too soon made glad” by such things as watching a sunset or riding her white mule around the terrace, and she should not have responded with pleasure to anything or anyone but the duke himself. Browning allows the reader to infer what kind of man the duke is by piecing together the past and present situation. A basic device used throughout the poem is irony. Instead of seeing an unfaithful wife as the duke pictures her, the reader sees the jealous and egotistical mind of the duke himself. The duke seems to assume that the agent will follow the logic of why he commanded that his duchess be eliminated, and he lets the agent know how easily it is within the duke’s power to issue such commands.

The poem is written in rhymed iambic pentameter lines. A striking aspect of form in the poem is the repeated use of enjambment, in which a line’s sense and meaning runs on into the following line, so that the rhymed couplets are “open” rather than closed. This technique, in which the syntactical pauses rarely coincide with line endings, creates a tension in the rhythm and places emphasis on the horrors the duke reveals as the sentences end in mid-line (caesura). The lines thus often appear irregular, an informalizing of a formal pattern, as though the duke is relaxing his proud formality and speaking casually.

The lines are extremely concentrated. Not a single word is wasted. Throughout the poem there is a chilling meiosis, the words imparting much more than they express. The apparent pauses, shown by dashes, purportedly indicate a hesitation as the duke considers what to say, but actually they suggest his consummate arrogance and manipulative control of the situation. Twice the agent starts to question or interrupt, but the duke smoothly deflects the interruptions and continues speaking. He is in total control of the situation, however casual he may pretend to be.

When the duke finally refers to the marriage arrangement directly, he summarizes the situation succinctly. He first mentions the money he will expect, then mentions the count’s daughter. At first this seems merely to confirm the duke’s emphasis on money. Yet since he had clearly stated his solution for ending his first marriage, the words “his fair daughter’s selfis my object” become particularly sinister. Unless he can possess his next duchess as he possesses the portrait and the bronze statue, she too may become only an artifact on the wall, as nameless as the first duchess.

The pace of the poem builds toward the revelation that the duke ordered his wife killed, then to the quick summation of his terms for the marriage arrangement. The matter-of-fact tone that he uses throughout the poem shows that the duke considers himself totally justified, and he remains unrepentant and secure in his sense of power over others.

Themes and Meanings

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“My Last Duchess” shows the corrupt power of a domestic tyrant. Browning uses this theme again in his longest poem, The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), in which the sadistic Count Guido kills his wife after falsely accusing her of adultery.

Spoken monologues often reveal more to the listener (and reader) than the speaker intends, but this arrogant aristocrat has no hesitation. The Duke of Ferrara obviously considers himself superior to others and above laws and morality. He clearly states that he gave the commands that stopped his wife’s smiles altogether. After all, he tells the agent, “she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” The duke was irritated by such behavior and had it eliminated. He uses his power to get others to do his will, including, presumably, the agent. As he had others eliminate his wife, and as he had a painter and a sculptor create objects of art to his specifications, he assumes that the agent will provide the kind of duchess he wants. He seems unconcerned about any hesitations a potential second wife might have about how his first marriage ended. He appears confident his demands will be met, both the ample dowry and the subservient wife.

The jealousy and possessiveness that seem to accompany the duke’s assertion of power suggest that he will be equally suspicious of any living wife, and indeed the portrait of his last duchess is more satisfactory to him than was the duchess herself. He can open or close the curtain as he pleases; he can exert complete control.

Browning’s genius created a character whose own words condemn him and show him as a ruthless, corrupt man who misuses his power. What makes the Duke of Ferrara especially horrifying is that he feels no repentance and no need for repentance. There have been no checks on his abuses of power thus far, and there is nothing to suggest that he will not continue his egotistical and tyrannical ways.

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Historical and Social Context