Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"

Essay by johnjjp March 2004

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In this essay, I would like to discuss one of Robert Browning's better known poems, "My Last Duchess." While some readers may be put off by Browning's language which now seems archaic, his poem is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it almost two hundred years ago. It is as relevant in the twenty first century as it was in the sixteenth century which serves as the setting for the poet's history lesson. The poem focuses on a sixteenth century Italian duke who is regaling his guest with tales of his deceased wife from which the poem's title is derived. The Duke's guest is the envoy of a count whose daughter the Duke intends to make his next duchess.

The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue. Browning was one of the pioneers of the dramatic monologue in which a speaker's character is revealed to an implied audience through his words alone.

Through his speech, the Duke is revealed to be a villain lacking remorse who ordered the murder of his former wife because she did not live up to his expectations. That he can allude to his wife's murder with impunity is testimony to the power held by such despots. Of course, he would not be beyond the reach of the law should he confess to the Count's envoy, which explains why the Duke speaks in ambiguities.

As the poem begins, the Duke is discussing a portrait of the deceased Duchess with the Count's envoy who is invited to sit in order to listen to her tale ("That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive"). "That's" is a well chosen word because the Duke has objectified his wife, even when she was alive. He...