Why does Browning reveal the subject of "My Last Duchess" only at the end?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the poem, The Last Duchess the story goes that the Duke de Ferrara was planning to take the hand in marriage of whom has been historically linked to be Barbara, sister of the Count of Tyrol. The latter was the man whom the Duke was speaking to, as he was the person in charge of making the wedding arrangements.

Browning waits until the end to expose of whom and to whom he is speaking, because special language had to be employed to describe the beauty and joy that the last Duchess caused on the Duke. With this description, both the reader and his listener would assume the intense love that the Duke felt for his last Duchess, and also helps to accentuate the mourning and loss that the Duke must have felt.

Yet, as the conversation between the Duke and the Count continued, we see a radical change in the speech of the Duke, whom explains how the last Duchess was happy with more than one man, and how he "made the command."

This last comment is what shocks the reader towards the end as we realize that it was the Duke who commanded the death of the Duchess out of anger.

When he immediately switches the conversation back to the Duke and his wedding arrangements to Barbara is when we see that the Count is about to place his sister in a very shady situation, and that gives continuity to the poem. This is a stylistic license that Browning used to wait until the end to bring surprise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain why Browning waits until the end of "My Last Duchess" to tell to whom he has been talking and why?

Browning's poem "My Last Duchess" is a dramatic monologue that begins in the middle of a conversation between the duke and another individual.   We can gather from the beginning that the speaker is looking at and discussing with another the picture of his late wife

That's my last duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive

 This situation immediately provokes questions from the reader:  What happened to the Duchess?  What caused her death? As the speaker continues to give details about the painting, details about her personality are also revealed to us.  We learn that she was lively, humble, joyous, kind, and responsive to others.  Sympathy for this young woman who died is aroused. 

But we also detect hostility in the speaker's voice.  He is criticizing his late wife for what seems to be innocent behavior.  He seems proud and overbearing, demanding respect for his "nine-hundred-years-old name."  He seems to be possessive and jealous if she found pleasure in people or things apart from him. 

Then, the hammer falls!  We gather with shock that the Duke had had his wife killed because she did not please him:

This grew: I gave commands;

Than all smiles stopped together. 

Here the reader is fully engaged in the text.  We want to know why the Duke is revealing such a horrendous act and for what purpose.  The final lines seal our verdict of the Duke.  We see that the story of his last wife was deliberately told and calculated as a warning to the emissary of his betrothed's family as to how his new bride should act.  The ending is chilling.  The Duke, because of his wealth and name, was able to murder with impunity, and his new bride will have no choice but to conform to his tyranny.  The details of the poem are arranged to provoke curiosity, create suspense, and convey a lasting impression of a powerful man in a patriarchal society. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on