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The dramatic monologue technique in "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning


Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" employs the dramatic monologue technique, where the Duke of Ferrara reveals his character and the story of his last wife through his speech. This method allows readers to understand the Duke's controlling and jealous nature indirectly, as he describes the portrait of his late Duchess and the circumstances leading to her demise.

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How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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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How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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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How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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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How 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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How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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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How is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

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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What is the dramatic monologue technique in "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning?

Browning's "My Last Dutchess" is a particularly well-done and tantalizing example of the dramatic monologue.  The dramatic monologue reveals the essence of the single speaker as he or she has a "one-sided" conversation with a listener who remains silent throughout.  We learn the subject of the dramatic monologue by implication, and, most important, the poet gives us significant insight into the character whose monologue we hear--insight sufficient to tell us whether we are listening to a trustworthy or untrustworthy person.

During the Duke of Ferrara's monologue, for example, we learn that the Dutchess was "too soon made glad, Too easily impressed."  To us, she may seem like a delightful person, but to the Duke, she was, among other things, too liberal with her smiles and too quick to be happy.  Of course, the power of the dramatic monologue is that we learn far more important things about the Duke than we do about the Dutchess.  We learn that the Duke is angered the his Dutchess seemed not to weigh his "gift" of an old and honored name more heavily than some small kindness like a "bough of cherries" someone brought her from the orchard.

When we learn that the Duke, completely frustrated by her ready smiles, orders her to stop, we know that we are dealing with a man who has gone slightly over the edge of normal behavior--in other words, we are presented, in the Duke's own words, of a seriously jealous man.  And when he says her smiles "stopped together," and no more mention is made of her, we are forced to conclude that perhaps the Duke stopped her smiles permanently.  The Duke is completely silent on what happened, and this silence convicts him as much as an affirmative confession.

The dramatic monologue, especially in this poem, tells us everything we need to know about the speaker in order to form a moral judgment about him, and we come away from this monologue with the understanding that we have been listening to a jealous, vindictive, dangerous man.

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Is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

At first, we do not realize how awful the Duke is. He mentions the painting of his late wife, compliments the painter of the portrait, and takes note of the fact that no one is allowed to move the curtain that covers her portrait besides himself. We might even assume, at this point, that the curtain exists because it is too painful for the Duke to look at the portrait all the time. His late wife's cause of death is a mystery. 

However, once the Duke begins to describe the Duchess's "flaw"—that she was "too soon made glad" by any little thing, and he wanted her to think he and his "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" were the best things and not be as happy with a sunset, for example, as she was with him—we start to see the Duke as selfish and unappreciative of the beautiful spirit of gratitude and joy the Duchess had. Moreover, he displays his immense pride when he explains why he refused to tell her that he wanted her to appreciate him more than anything else, saying, "I choose / Never to stoop." He would have considered it beneath him to have to explain such a thing.

Finally, the Duke reveals that "[he] gave commands; / Then all [her] smiles stopped together." In other words, he had her murdered. We now fully understand what a monster he is: a man who killed his wife because too many things made her happy. Also startling is the fact that he doesn't consider the risks of telling the representative of his (potentially) future fiancée's family that he murdered his last wife for displeasing him; he sees nothing wrong with his actions. When the Duke moves on to discuss another fine work of art in his gallery, "Neptune [...] / Taming a sea-horse," we understand that, to him, his wife was just another possession, and because he couldn't fully possess her, he killed her and turned her life into a painting: something he could fully own and control (with his curtain). Further, he couldn't "tame" her when she was alive as Neptune does the seahorse in the sculpture, so he "tamed" her in death.

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Is "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue?

You don't ask a question in your question, so I assume you just want the details of "My Last Duchess" as a dramatic monologue.

The poem features one speaker speaking to a silent listener in a dramatic situation.  Though the listener is identifiable (fiance's father's representative), he doesn't speak.  The purpose of the poem is characterization of the speaker. 

In Browning's poem, the Duke is speaking to the agent, and reveals himself to be pompous, arrogant, warped, and murderous.  The dramatic occasion is the negotiation of the amount of the dowry of the fiance, if you can call it a negotiation, since the Duke does all the talking/threatening. 

Dramatic monologues are known for their implied characterization.  In this case, the Duke doesn't tell the reader what an ass he is.  The reader figures that out on his/her own.  The threats made by the Duke are also implied, though they are very real.

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Why is "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning considered a dramatic monologue?

A dramatic monologue typically has a couple of key features.  First, it is in poetry format.  If it were not, then it would be a theatrical monologue.  "My Last Duchess" has that characteristic.  

Second, the poem/speech is one person's speech.  It is not a conversation.  The speaker is also an assumed character.  It is not simply the internal thoughts of the poet.  A character is speaking.  In "My Last Duchess" the speaking character is the Duke.  

I think the reason that Browning chose this format is that the format leaves much of the character interpretation up to the audience.  In a normal third person narration, the narrator can tell audience members that a character is "this" or "that" type of character. The narrator can tell the audience what personality traits somebody has.  But by creating a dramatic monologue, Browning has shown readers exactly what the Duke is like.  We get a much better feel for the character, because the poem is spoken through that character. 

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Why is "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning considered a dramatic monologue?

"My Last Duchess" qualifies as a dramatic monologue because the entire poem is comprised of the speech of one person in a specific moment, and because we only know the actions of the person the speaker is addressing through the speaker's descriptions.

One major reason that Robert Browning might have written the poem as a dramatic monologue is that it is the best way to really show who this character is, and the form has a great deal more impact than simply describing this character from a third person perspective.  Browning could tell us that this duke is incredibly callous, or he could allow the duke to show us himself how callous he is through his own actions and statements.  We get a much greater sense of who this person is through seeing him in action than we could any other way.

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