Reading and Discussion Questions on Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" (1842)
Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Editor; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Ontario)
"My Last Duchess" first appeared among the sixteen poems in Dramatic Lyrics (November 1842) with the title "I. Italy." It followed the three "Cavalier Tunes" ("I. Marching Along," "II. Give a Rouse," and "III. Boots and Saddle," lyrics evoking the Royalist cause in the English Civil War, 1642-49), and appeared immediately before "Count Gismond — Aix in Provence" (which Browning entitled simply "II. France"). Dramatic Lyrics, an apparent contradiction in terms, was the third of the Bells and Pomegranates pamphlets whose printing costs were underwritten by Browning's father; the sixteen poems it contains were written between 1834 (when Browning was twenty-two) and 1842. Browning changed the title to "My Last Duchess" in 1849 when it was included in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, a volume for which Browning received the advice of his publisher, Edward Moxon. The other poems in the original (1842) volume are as follows: "Incident of the French Camp," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "In a Gondola," "Artemis Prologizes," "Waring," "Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli," "Cristina," "Johannes Agricola in Meditation," "Porphyria's Lover," "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr," and "The Pied Piper of Hamlin; A Child's Story."
Answer each the following questions in a paragraph of approximately eight sentences, making direct reference to the poem. If you are collaborating with others to produce a group response, please provide your initial, individual responses with your final, group response. All submissions should indicate the names of all writers and be formatted according to MLA style.
1. The poem is of the type called a dramatic monologue because it consists entirely of the words of a single speaker (persona) who reveals in his speech his own nature and the dramatic situation in which he finds himself. The dramatic monologue reveals its own place and time as it proceeds to uncover the psychology of the speaker at a significant moment in his or her life. Browning's Duke has been labeled (despite his apparent cunning) as "witless"--why?
2. The form of the poem is iambic pentameter couplets. How does Browning give this highly regular form conversational and informal qualities?
3. The speaker is the arrogant, art-collecting Duke of Ferrara. We might even call him the protagonist, for, although we may not agree with him, we are virtually compelled to identify with him since he speaks directly to us, with a mediating narrator. How does Browning force us to place our sympathies with so objectionable a persona?
4. The place is the grand staircase in the ducal palace at Ferrara, in northern Italy. How does Browning have the Duke himself subtly reveal this location and the general circumstances under which he addresses the envoy?
5. The time is the Italian Renaissance, as Browning establishes by references to art and the dowry which the Duke is negotiating with the Count of Tyrol, as well as by the Duke's "thousand-year-old name." Why is this "name" so important to this Renaissance Duke?
6. The Duke eliminated (divorced? sent to a convent? had executed or poisoned?) his last duchess because (he felt) she undervalued him and treated him much as she treated other men. Which trivial incidents in particular seem to have produced this response in the Duke?
7. As the poem opens, the Duke has been making dowry arrangements with the envoy of the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to marry; "the company" awaiting the Duke and envoy below are the Count's party. Why does the Duke apparently try to forestall the envoy's rushing down the stairs at the end of the poem?
8. In all likelihood, the Duke will not succeed in his suit because the envoy will warn his master about the dangerous possessiveness of the prospective son-in-law. Agree or disagree, citing evidence from the poem.
9. The Duke reveals himself to be an emotionally cold, calculating, materialistic, haughty, aristocratic connoisseur; on the positive side, he is a patron of such artists as Fra Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck (both fictional). What does he value in art? What does he see as his role in the creation of great art?
10. The statue of Neptune ("a rarity") taming a seahorse may be regarded as a symbol of brutal male domination of the beautiful and natural. How might we regard this statue as representing the Duke?
11. The envoy, apparently alarmed by what he has heard, tries to break away from the Duke, but is restrained by him. What, if anything, does Browning reveal about the envoy?
12. The Duke regards artists as names to conjure with, but also as social inferiors, lackeys who do his bidding and by their works attest to his refined tastes. Ironically, for the Duke the portrait of the duchess is better than the living duchess herself because he can control who sees and enjoys the portrait; the living duchess was beyond his control. Browning allows the reader to assess the Duke for himself. The reader sees that such powerful Renaissance rulers were ruthless and rapacious parvenus. He also sees how jealousy and possessiveness can destroy those very things we love the most. Despite his depravity, what is pathetic about the Duke?
13. At about the same time (1842), Alfred Lord Tennyson was publishing his first dramatic monologue, "Ulysses." In what respects are the two poems similar? How do they differ, especially in terms of the "understood auditor"?
14. In view of the probable fate of the former duchess, why may we describe the Duke's taking the Count's envoy into his confidence situationally ironic? How does Browning render the Duke's doing so probable rather than improbable?
15. The Duke has been described as both "disdainful" and "proud." Other terms that might be applied to his character are "hubristic" and "megalomaniacal." Explain with reference to the poem how each of these adjectives is appropriate.
16. In his portrait of an Italian Renaissance nobleman, Browning has made use of an actual historical figure, Alphonso II D'Este, Duke of Ferrara (1533-97; ruled 1559-97). Use whatever resources available to compare (briefly) this real person with Browning's fictional duke, pointing out both points of congruence and differences. Speculate as to why did Browning chose not to mention the Duke by name.
17. Thomas Blackburn in Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry (1967) argues that the poem is "a novel [which] in about sixty lines conveys a sense of the infinite complexity of life, of the under and overtones of existence" (p. 173). Defend or refute this classification and interpretation with direct reference to both the poem and an accepted definition of the term "novel."
18. Attempt to classify the Duke psychologically, explaining why he finds the portrait of his late wife preferable to the living original.
19. To what extent may we take the statue of Neptune, taming a seahorse, as an emblem of the Duke's relationship with his last duchess? Consider the identity as well as the disposition of Neptune, and how the seahorse may serve as an emblem of the duchess.
20. Why is the form of the poem (iambic pentameter couplets) both appropriate to the characterization of the speaker and effective in presenting him as a Renaissance "type"?
21. Why should we classify the poem as Browning did--that is, as a "dramatic lyric"?
22. Precisely what about the duchess did the Duke object to? How do his values partially justify or mitigate his actions to the reader?
23. Explain how the Duke's attitudes towards art and artists as revealed in the poem reveal his essential materialism, aristocratic hauteur, and insecurity.
24. Speculate as to why Browning chosen to use the form of a monologue and has thereby eliminated the possibility of providing a narrator to comment on the action and the characters.
25. Why has the Duke positioned the full-length portrait on a landing on the grand staircase, then had it covered with a curtain?
26. Discuss three contradictory characteristics that Browning reveals in the Duke, showing how each quality or characteristic is subtly revealed.
27. Based on the clues that Browning provides in the poem, explain both what happened before the opening of the poem (i. e., what fate befell the Duchess and how) and what will happen just after the poem closes.
28. How does the Envoy's reaction to the Duke's displaying and discussing the portrait condition our judgment of the Duke and the Duchess? That is, to what extent is the Envoy's response ours?
29. Attempt, with specific reference to the poem, to formulate a statement of theme or poetic intention. What truth(s) about human nature does the poem communicate?
30. Much of the great imaginative literature of the nineteenth century in some way involves a dream of a golden age, a glorious past or a utopian future. In what ways may we take "My Last Duchess" as Browning's response to the golden age of the Renaissance in Italy?
31. The title of the poem was originally simply "I. Italy." Suggest why Browning so named it and speculate as to why he changed the name.
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Last modified 30 November 2005