Robert Browning

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What are the key features of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues?

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The speaker in "My Last Duchess" reveals a number of things about himself through his description of the painting. He is proud, for one. He looks down on the woman in the painting, who is painted as an idealized version of herself. He used to be married to a woman who matched that image—a woman he loved and respected—but he had her murdered because she did not meet his expectations. The reader infers all this from what the speaker has said and from his reactions to seeing a painting of a woman he once loved but now cannot bear to look upon because she reminds him of what he has lost.

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In both "My Last Duchess" and "Porphyria's Lover," for example, Browning reveals the character of the speaker through indirect characterizationreaders are not told about the speaker directly but, rather, must infer based on what the characters say and do—and both speakers also seem to possess an alarming lack of self-awareness. Porphyria's lover, thrilled by her confession of love despite her inability to stay in the relationship, decides to strangle her with her own hair in order to keep her; the speaker later describes her "smiling rosy little head" and does not seem to realize that killing Porphyria is a really psychotic way to prevent her from leaving (and, also, effectively ends her ability to love). The Duke, likewise, admits to having given "commands" that made his wife's smiles stop altogether—implying that he had her killed because she failed to properly appreciate the status his name conferred upon her— failing to realize that such a thing is quite wrong (or even that it isn't wise to say this to a man who is brokering his next marriage!).

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The dramatic monologue as developed by the Victorian poet Robert Browning is a genre in which a single character is speaking to either an explicit (as in My Last Duchess or the Bishop Orders his Tomb) or undefined (when there is no immediate audience except the speaker, as in Porphyria's Lover or Soliliquy of a Spanish Cloister). Unlike the soliliquy of a play, the dramatic monolgue stands alone rather than being part of a larger drama or narrative.

Typically, whatever the putative subject the narrator discusses, the most significant thing revealed is the narrator's character, whether casuistical in the case of Bishop Blughram, cold and calculating in the case of the Duke of My Last Duchess, or insane, as in Porphyria's Lover. The overwhelming majority of narrators in Browning's dramatic monologues are unreliable -- as the poems progress, we increasingly begin to doubt the truth, sanity, or motive of what they say.

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