In the following readings of Browning's justly famous poem, Professor Allingham shows the different kinds of answers different critical approaches can produce. (Brief explanations of each critical method link to each of the terms below.) You will notice that although these various critical theories ask diffrent questioons and produce different answers, these readings complement — rather than contradict — one another. In other words, in the same way that a cell biologist can ask questions about the physics, biochemistry, genetics, and physiology of a cell and receive differing results, so, too, can a student of literary approach a text in different ways without making the study of literature subjective and a matter largely of personal taste and opinion. [GPL]

1. The poem "My Last Duchess" (complete text) is termed a "dramatic monologue" because

A. it contains three formal elements: an occasion, a speaker, and a hearer. [Formalist]

B. all its words are heard--and are intended to be heard--by an implied auditor. [Formalist]

C. in it we hear only one voice--and as is typical of pre-twentieth-century verse that voice is male. [Feminist]

D. rather than being "narrative," by virtue of its scansion and diction it appears to have been excerpted from the body of a verse drama such as a play by Shakespeare.[Rhetorical]

2. The "voice" or "persona" in the poem "My Last Duchess"

A. enables the poet to synthesize two types of verse, the lyric and the drama. [Formalist]

B. talks about and describes a woman, but never actually quotes that woman. [Feminist]

C. presents the character directly and ironically, without comment by the poet. [New Criticism]

D. creates what one critic has termed "psychography," a text which serves to reveal the inner workings of a single character's psychology, values, tastes, and motivations. [Psychological]

3. Browning's Duke speaks in noble poetry through which the reader

A. rejects the behaviour of the speaker in favour of the behaviour of the woman who opposed him. [Feminist]

B. responds negatively when the speaker assumes everything he says meets with the auditor's approval. [New Criticism]

C. mentally constructs a vivid portrait of a deeply disturbed and disturbing individual. [Psychological]

D. comes to comprehend the courtesy, dignity, artistic taste, and essential cruelty of a Renaissance autocrat. [New Historicist]

4. The phrase "Last Duchess" (as given in the title and repeated in the opening line)

A. might suggest more a comparative than an exclusive designation, as would "Late." [ Rhetorical]

B. reflects the woman was, ultimately, more a public "Duchess" than a private "wife." [Feminist]

C. is part of an unspoken title: in his own eyes, there is no poem but only his words to the Count's emissary. [Deconstruction]

D. implies that the Duke is that monster out of fairy tale and myth, a compound of the legendary youth-devouring Minotaur and the wife-collecting murderer Bluebeard from the popular Victorian fairy tale. [Archetypal]

5. In the last part of the poem, the Duke shifts the discussion away from the portrait per se to the negotiations about to begin "below," presumably in a great hall or audience chamber. The diction, shifting from art to business, is now characterized by such words as "gift," "munificence," "ample warrant," "disallowed," "company," and--perhaps most significantly--"dowry."

A. The Duke has already to argue the rightness or justice of his "pretense," which literally means "claim," but is a double entendre implying also "act" and "deception."[New Criticism]

B. Thus, the Duke reveals that everything that has gone before is mere "elegant persiflage" (light banter), a private conversation, and that only now is the real dialogue of competing interests about to begin. [Formalist]

C. In matters artistic, the Duke has assumed a superior position; he, manifesting every outward sign of self-effacing civility as he and his guest are about to join the company, steps back to permit the Count's emissary to accompany him as a social equal. [Psychological]

D. Thus, the Duke implies that the envoy should apply his "history" or "object lesson" (the fate of the unruly former duchess) to the female "object" of the transaction. In alluding to his wealth, nobility, power, and impeccable taste earlier, the Duke was emphasizing what currency he would be bringing to the bargaining table.[Marxist]

6.

Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

A. The value of a commodity is in direct proportion to its scarcity and desirability; to make the Duchess more valuable, the Duke had her commodified, made into a painting by a certified "Master" to which only the Duke himself controls the access. [Marxist]

B. Since such statues as the one the Duke notes were hardly rare, the Duke ironically may be overvaluing the work which he is so proud of having commissioned. [New Criticism]

C. The statue of Neptune is a psychological projection of the Duke himself as both enjoy dominating what is beautiful, delicate, feminine, and natural. [Psychological]

D. The mention of the material would be unnecessary in a real conversation since the statue's being bronze would be obvious to an observer; therefore, the phrase "cast in bronze" betrays the artificial and textual nature of this one-sided dialogue. [Deconstruction]

7.

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, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

A. By her enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life rather than just the expensive products of male ingenuity, the Duchess defined herself as a non-man. [Feminist]

B. The repetitions of the definite article, reinforced by the use of "alike," "all and each," are highly suggestive of those robot-like mechanics that completely define the Duke and the fabricated conventionality within which the Duchess was trapped. [Rhetorical]

C. In order to put at stop to such unrestrained enjoyment and counter his feelings of inadequacy and rejection, the Duke had to do what he asserts he will never do--mentally "stoop" to reprove and correct. [Psychological]

D. The grammatical structure of the sentence by its additive mode of simple enumeration implies the Duchess's failure to discriminate any ranking among the parts, as opposed to the Duke's punctilious gradation of the content. [Formalist]

8. The excellence of the poem, as B. R. Jerman contends, lies in the

A. dramatic irony of the Duke's treatment of the envoy, for he unwittingly reveals his true personality to the Count's representative. [New Criticism]

B. portrait it conveys of Renaissance society, which, though it esteemed feminine beauty, invested power in ruthless rulers such as the Duke as effective and praiseworthy. [New Historicist]

C. Duke's inability to realize that having a real relationship with a woman such as the Duchess would be far more rewarding than owning numerous representations of women. [Feminist]

D. monologue's characterizing arranged marriages among the governing classes of the Renaissance as nothing more than business transactions which commodified beauty. [Marxist]

9.

I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hand
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

A. The portrait of the last duchess is a symbol of compliance in marriage, which the Duke intimates to the envoy is what he expects from the Count's daughter. [Feminist]

B. The Duke utters the name "Frà Pandolf" three times in order to impress the envoy with his artistic taste and discernment. [Rhetorical]

C. The Duke was egotistically insensitive to the living beauty before him when the Duchess lived, and finds it a wonder only now that it has been transformed into a timeless, ageless beauty that only a work of art can contain. [Psychological]

D. While the real woman inconveniently took pleasure in things other than the Duke, the mechanically reproduced, realistic picture of a photogenic woman is a suitable trophy for a dilettante in that it is a distillation of only her beauty. [Feminist]

10.

But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I). . . .

The Duke keeps the full-length portrait covered because

A. like a jealous and emotionally insecure child, he wants to show complete possession of the Duchess's smile. [Psychological]

B. he likes to use it as an object lesson to enforce in others a view of him that obliges them to respect and fear him. [Marxist]

C. he believes he is revealing his taste when in fact he is revealing the traditional masculine pathology that requires a man's wife be entirely subservient to his will.[Feminist]

D. reflecting the poet's sense of phrasing and timing, like a theatrical producer he wants to control the viewer's response by timing the drawing of the curtain as part of his faultless performance as the gracious and cultured host.[Rhetorical]

11.

I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

The magisterial sweep of the opening lines, as David Shaw contends,

A. in their oracular impressiveness and grammar suggests a parody of the opening of Genesis, in which God "calls" all life into being and names everything He has created. [Reader-Response]

B. establishes from the outset that the Duke appreciates objects of art more than he does the rights of others because the art has tangible, "monetary" value. [Marxist]

C. demonstrates that only "now," after a passage of time, the Duke has forgotten the woman he had to dispose of and is free to admire the virtuosity of the (male) painter who has transcribed that woman's chief commodity, her beauty, in a less threatening form. [Feminist]

D. not only establishes the name of the master-painter who created this "wonder," but implies the supervisory role of the artist's "patron," the Duke, in its creation, as is consistent with the role of the aristocratic patron in Renaissance Italy.[New Historicist]

12.

Even had you skill
In speech--which I have not--to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark". . . .

A. The Duke interprets the Duchess's plain enjoyment as impudence and rebellion against her social superior, surrogate father, and master. [Psychological]

B. What is most repulsive in the Duke's manner here is the callous precision of an insane rationalist whose dissociation of logical forms suggests mild schizophrenia. [Psychological]

C. The Duke's continually referring to his auditor as "sir" similarly implies the speaker's feeling that the envoy shares his outlook and interpretation of the Duchess's aberrant conduct, and will endorse the "commands" that the Duke ultimately felt he had to give. [New Criticism]

D. Regardless of what the envoy tells his master of this speech, the putative duchess will still have no part in the negotiations since Italian women of the sixteenth century were treated as chattels rather than legally independent entities. [New Historicist]

13.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West. . . .

A. The rhymes, which are irrational satellites revolving round the rhetoric, imply that, for example, in the above couplet, the Duchess' "breast" has indeed become for the Duke a sinking sun. [Rhetorical]

B. Her according the natural phenomenon, a common enough event, and the mark of his special grace equal status the Duke interpreted as a diminution of his assumed perfection; such notice would be for the Duke psychologically intolerable. [Psychological]

C. The Duchess, indicates the painter, valued the Duke's "favour" since it occupies first place among her accessories in the portrait, but her painted her clear of those walls which must have been for her nothing but a prison. [New Criticism]

D. For the Duke, exposing the Duchess's lack of discernment is the equivalent of exposing himself as one who could not master her; and that mastery, never realized while she lived, asserts itself by his manipulation of a cord that draws curtains--ironically, scarcely satisfying "control." [Feminist]

14.

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.

A. The Duke intends to flatter the Count's envoy by giving him the privilege of beholding what he regards as an extraordinarily beautiful work of art. [Psychological]

B. The Duke intends to impress the Count's envoy with his power to command complete and total subservience, that he is no mere princeling, but a genuine autocrat. [Marxist]

C. The Duke indicates to the Count's envoy verbally what the curtains manifestly symbolize, that the lady in the portrait is now dead, not tucked away in a convent. [Deconstruction]

D. The Duke implies to the Count's envoy that the painting is superior to the original because the (male) artist has infused the face with an earnestness and depth of passion that the lady herself lacked. [Feminist]

15.

Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

A. Browning himself visited Innsbruck and Tyrol just four years before "My Last Duchess" appeared in print, when he was on his way home from Italy in 1838. [Philological]

B. The arrogant affability of the conclusion makes it clear that the Duke is both insane and frighteningly in control, as the perfect, deceptive iambic pentameter couplet asserts. [Formalist]

C. The closing phrase of the poem, "for me," re-establishes the whole proprietary nature of the Duke, and rules out any possibility of a final redemption before he disappears from our ken forever by descending the staircase. [Psychological]

D. Since Alfonso d'Este's grand-aunt owned a similar work, "Un Neptuno sopra un monstro col tridente," the reference to this statue's being in the ducal palace of Ferrara is intended as a piece of historical detailism to prove the text's verisimilitude. [New Historicist]

16.

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

A. The poem has the salutary effect of making readers, particularly masculine readers, confront the Duke within themselves. [Feminist]

B. This deliberate ambivalence shows the poet's deliberately departing from historical truth. Browning in an interview once said, "I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death . . . Or he might have had her shut up in a convent." [Deconstruction]

C. The Duke is modeled on Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, and the last of the Este family which Browning had dealt with in Sordello; Alfonso II, born in 1533, married Lucrezia de Medici, then fourteen, in 1558. Four years after her death, perhaps caused by poison, in 1561, Alfonso married the daughter of Ferdinand I, Count of Tyrol. [New Historicist]

D. Browning said that the Duke used his wife's supposed shallowness as an excuse--mainly to himself--for taking revenge on one who had unwittingly wounded his absurdly pretentious vanity, by failing to recognize his superiority in even the most trifling matters. [Psychological]

17.

I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.

A. Browning's Duke is a soulless virtuoso, the natural product of a corrupt class system that empowers a proud, arrogant, and exclusive aristocracy. [ Marxist]

B. Browning's psychopathic Duke finds satisfaction only in manipulating and controlling others, the outward and visible signs of his imposing his will being wealth and what wealth enables him to purchase. [Psychological]

C. Browning's theme is the historical tyranny of man over woman--the tyrannical suppression of one nature by another merely on the basis of gender, and not with respect to economic or social necessity. [Feminist]

D. Browning's Duke is the Devil incarnate, inured to murder and ignorant of Christian virtues, a creation intended to be a symbol of pride, materialism, and viciousness of Christian evil, blind to his own probable damnation. [Archetypal]

18.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design. . . .

A. A gentle "spot of joy" that the artist has captured in the Duchess's cheek will remain undiminished when her imperious Duke, like the real lady herself, is dust and ashes. [Formalist]

B. In sympathy with the observant painter of the poem, Browning invites us to suspend the moral judgments of others and judge for ourselves two studies of human nature, the one a portrait in pigments, the other a portrait in words. [Psychological]

C. In the Italian Renaissance, rulers such as Browning's Duke employed subservient craftsmen--painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and architects--whose work provides an historical account to us of those fierce and elegant despots who patronized them. [New Historicist]

D. In repeating the name of the artist three times, the Duke implies vaguely that the genius exhibited in the painting is somehow his, and that the choice of artist is itself a higher creative act since the painting was done under his strict supervision--for, after all, Frà Pandolf's proletarian hands did not actually "paint," they merely "worked." [Marxist]

Related Materials

References

Berman, R. J. Browning's Duke. New York: Richards Rosen Press, 1972.

Corson, Hiram. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning's Poetry. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1889.

Fotheringham, James. Studies in the Poetry of Robert Browning. London: Kegan, Paul, and Trench, 1887.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th edn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Jack, Ian. Browning's Major Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

Jerman, B. R. "Browning's Witless Duke." Modern Language Association Journal, June 1957: 488-493.

Mitchell, Domhnall. "Browning's 'My Last Duchess'." Explicator 50, 2 (Winter 1992) : 74-75.

Palmer, George H. "The Monologue of Browning." Harvard Theological Review, XI, 2(April 1918) : 121-144.

Poems in English 1530-1940, ed. David Daiches. New York: Ronald, 1950. Pp. 462-463.

Robert Browning The Poems, Volume One. Ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981. Pp. 349-350.

Shaw, David W. "Browning's Duke as Theatrical Producer." Victorian Newsletter 29 (Spring 1966): 18-22.

Tucker, F. Herbert, Jr. Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure. Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1980.

Victorian Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange. Boston: Riverside, 1959. Pp. 179-180.


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 14 July 2003

Last modified 8 June 2007