How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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"My Last Duchess" is an example of a dramatic monologue because it is a poem written from the viewpoint of a character who is definitively not the author of the poem. Robert Browning himself didn't kill his "last duchess." Instead, he is expressing, in verse form, the story of an imaginary man who did. This poem is a monologue because it is told in a single voice, as opposed to a dialogue, in which two or more people converse with each other.

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A dramatic monologue is a narrative-style poem in which a fictional speaker unwittingly reveals their true character while describing some series of events. “My Last Duchess” is a poem in which a fictional speaker describes the events that took place with his former wife, a woman who is now deceased, because he is looking to remarry. The poem is not autobiographical and does not address Robert Browning’s own life, as the speaker is a duke with a “nine-hundred-years-old-name.” Though this character may be inspired by someone in real life, the duke is a creation of the poet’s imagination. Further, the duke is the only character heard to speak in the poem, though he is speaking to someone present with him in the poem, making this a true monologue rather than a dialogue.

In describing the situation with his “last duchess,” the duke does inadvertently reveal his own horrible and selfish character. He criticizes his last duchess for being “too soon made glad” and for blushing just the same no matter what gift was given to her. She did not reserve her smiles and blushes for her husband alone, and this made him angry. However, he refused to speak to her about the matter because it would have wounded his great pride to do so. Therefore, he “gave commands,” and “all smiles stopped together,” making it sound as though he had her killed so that he could start over with a new wife that would value him more highly. What’s more is that he seems to count her portrait as one of his valued possessions—like his statue of Neptune taming a seahorse—indicating how much he objectifies women and his need for control.

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A dramatic monologue is a poem in which a speaker addresses another person who does not answer back. This is why it is a monologue rather than a dialogue. In the course of his speech, the speaker reveals aspects of his personality or situation that he might not be aware of or might prefer to keep hidden.

"My Last Duchess" is a classic example of a dramatic monologue. The duke addresses an emissary who has come to arrange his next marriage. He speaks to him about his dead wife, the "last duchess" of the title. While the duke obviously wants to impress this man, he reveals aspects of his character that are less than flattering.

For instance, he shows himself to have been jealous, narcissistic, and controlling in his relationship with his now dead wife. As they gaze at her portrait, the Duke complains that she would dare to smile at other people and to be happy at simple pleasures. He couldn't bear that she didn't focus exclusively on him, saying:

She had 
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad, 
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er 
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
The bough of cherries some officious fool 
Broke in the orchard for her
He even goes so far as to enact a tiny drama as he imitates another speaking:
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
Half-flush that dies along her throat.”
Although we only hear his point of view on past events, the Duke reveals clearly how he must have made his wife suffer—and he hints that her death was due to him.
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Browning's poem is an excellent example of a dramatic monologue. It is a monologue because the entire poem consists of the words spoken by a single voice, Duke Ferrara's. It is dramatic because it contains the elements of drama, primarily characters, a narrative, physical action, and a physical setting. Through these devices of drama, the poem becomes a scene that could be staged with actors and props.

In the poem, the Duke speaks to another person, perhaps an emissary from the family of his next wife. The listener does not interrupt, but his presence is felt in the poem as the Duke refers to him as "you" and "sir" and offers him a chair so that he may sit and look at the portrait of the Duke's former wife. At the conclusion of his comments, the Duke directs his visitor to leave his seat and move on:

Nay, we'll go

Together down, sir.

As they descend, the Duke points out a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea horse, symbolic of his relationship with his former wife.

These physical actions (sitting and leaving) and the props (the guest's chair, the portrait of the Duchess, and the bronze statue) make it possible for the reader to visualize the scene as if it were played out upon a stage.

Throughout the Duke's monologue, the story develops, and his character, as well as the Duchess's, is revealed. Her fate at his hands is not established precisely, but the conclusion of the poem (and the story) implies that his next Duchess will be marrying a man who misrepresents himself, concealing the arrogance and cruelty of his nature.

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Why is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

The poem "My Last Duchess" is an example of a dramatic monologue because it features an imagined or fictionalized speaker who addresses a silent listener. In addition, it provides real psychological insight into the lone speaker's character, illustrating his absolute pride, entitlement, and privilege.

The narrator of the poem is a duke, a man presumably based upon the real-life Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso II, a man who lived during the Renaissance and who is rumored to have poisoned his very young wife. However, he is certainly fictionalized to some extent, despite the poem's rather obvious subtitle. In the poem, he addresses a representative of a count, attempting to broker his next marriage to the count's "fair daughter." However, this representative never speaks, and so there is no back-and-forth between the characters in the poem; only the duke himself speaks, making this poem a monologue.

Further, the duke reveals his own character and his pride and selfishness via his narrative. Rather than be delighted by his wife's personality and the fact that she is so appreciative of every trivial compliment and small gift, he is irritated by the fact that she does not value him above everyone and everything else. Rather than explain to her that he wants her to appreciate his gifts to her more than anyone else's, which he considers to be beneath him, he "gave commands" which led to her death. In other words, he seems to have had her killed so that he could marry again. He is so proud and so ego driven that he had a delightful young woman murdered so that he could marry someone else, someone who would acknowledge his superiority.

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What are the characteristics of dramatic monologue in "My Last Duchess"?

In a typical dramatic monologue, the speaker directly addresses another person, though the other person, by convention, does not respond—that's why it's a monologue and not a dialogue. In this poem, the Duke is the only person who speaks, and he seems to be speaking to the representative for a Count, whose daughter the Duke is attempting to secure in marriage. Toward the end of the poem, he speaks of a dowry and how the Count's "fair daughter's self" is his "object." In other words, the occasion for this monologue is the Count's endeavors to find himself a new duchess. The fact that he never allows the Count's representative to speak seems to hint at the selfishness of his character.

Further, a dramatic monologue is meant to reveal significant insight into the character who delivers it. In this case, the Duke reveals himself to be a selfish, murderous monster. He describes the irritation he felt that his wife was "too soon made glad" by any trivial offering and failed to rank his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" above any other gift she received. He says,

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.

It sounds, then, as though the Duke decided to simply rid himself of his last duchess by giving orders to have her killed. That way, he would "Never [have] to stoop" to explain to her why she should have valued him more than anyone else. This information, and his casual relation of it, offers insight into his character indeed.

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What are the characteristics of dramatic monologue in "My Last Duchess"?

Here are some notes and outline points to help you write a response to this question:

The monologue's characteristics:

  • give a psychological portrait of a powerful Renaissance aristocrat
  • is presented to the reader as if he or she were simply "eavesdropping" on a slice of casual conversation
  • is a possible confession to his former wife's murder
  • foreshadows the fate of his next duchess
  • reveals the speaker's extreme jealousy and pride in male reputation
  • reveals irony, both verbal and situational.  The speaker has his former wife killed because of the young woman's "faults": compassion, modesty, humility, delight in simple pleasures, and courtesy to those who served her
  • reveals the powerlessness of women due to arranged marriages and male sexism
  • depicts the inner workings of his speaker, but has in fact allowed the speaker to reveal his own failings and imperfections to the reader
  • begins and concludes with the Duke drawing his listener's attention to works of art: first, the painting of the "last Duchess," his former wife; in the final lines, a sculpture of the sea-god Neptune taming a "seahorse."  The Duke's refined taste as a collector bears no relation to the humanistic qualities of the art itself
  • reveals beautiful language in iambic pentameter and rhymed couplets, the most natural cadence in the English language

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