In Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," the Duke of Ferrara addresses an envoy, through whom we, the audience, perceive the Duke. Browning succeeds in creating a growing sense of unease in the envoy — without ever directly referring to him. From the very first lines of the poem, we behold the Duke's hubris and hauteur. The Duke coolly describes his late wife's portrait "as if she were alive" and, with neither pause nor word of sad remembrance, he remarks upon the technical excellence of the painting. Instantly, Browning creates the vague suspicion that something is very, very wrong.
As the dramatic monologue progresses, the Duke's speech grows more disjointed. Browning's use of dashes creates the image of the Duke trying to justify the disposal of his late wife:
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked
Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?
The Duke continues to sugarcoat his actions by repeatedly claiming that he does not "stoop." At the same time, our own suspicions grow; we assume that the envoy must also be showing signs of alarm. In attempt to soothe the envoy, the Duke hurriedly interjects, "Oh sir, [the Duchess] smiled, no doubt whene'er I passed her." The Duke swiftly regains his composure and continues, "but who passed without much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together." This chilling remark is especially unsettling due to Browning's use of short, pointed sentences. It unsettles the envoy as much as it unsettles the reader.
1. By creating unease in the reader, Browning effectively characterizes the unmentioned envoy. To what extent are the reader's reactions identical to the envoy's reactions? Why do we so easily assume that our reactions match the envoy's?
2. In The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain, Ben Wilson describes Victorian attitudes toward marital infidelity:
The wound which a woman suffers by her husband's offence is only skin deep; but an unchaste wife, by her adultery, casts an indelible stain in her own offspring; and her society is avoided by the chaste part of her own sex. [page 147 ]
Although Browning writes about the Duke of Ferrara, who lived during the late Italian Renaissance, he composed the poem for the Victorian audience. What evidence, if any, points to the possibility that the Duchess committed adultery? What evidence goes against this possibility? How did the Victorians handle adultery? Were the Victorians more likely to sympathize with the Duke, or were they just as repulsed by the Duke as we are today?
3.In one of Robert Browning's other poems, "Porphyria's Lover," the main character also kills his female companion. However, Browning does not reveal the fact until the last third of the poem, where it appears as a sudden and unexpected twist. At what point in "My Last Duchess" do we suspect the Duke for the demise of his wife? How do revelations of murder differ in both poems? Why does Browning make the revelation more subtle in "My Last Duchess"?
4. What is the significance of the title "My Last Duchess"? In particular, discuss the various definitions of the word "last". Does it mean "previous, most recent" or does it mean "final, no more"? Are there other interpretations? How does this ambiguity affect our perception of the Duke?
Wilson, Ben. The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
Modified 9 March 2009