At the climax of Browning's "My Last Duchess," the speaker implies that he had a hand in his wife's demise:
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" — and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
— E'en then would be some stooping, and 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.
The language remains cheerful throughout the poem, and Browning sandwiches the revelation between nonchalant descriptions of paintings and sculptures.
1. In interview, Browning mentioned the possibility that the speaker in "My Last Duchess" has sent his last wife to a convent. "Then all smiles stopped together" seems ambiguous enough to allow for this possibility, but lines like "as if she were alive" and "There she stands | As if alive" obviously imply murder. Could Browning actually have meant to keep the wife's fate uncertain, or does it seem perfectly clear that the speaker killed her? Would it add anything to the poem if it were uncertain?
2. Two parts:
a. According to some interpretations, Robert Browning based the speaker of "My Last Duchess" on a historical figure: Alfonso II, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived during the second half of the sixteenth Century. Assuming the allusion actually exists, what does Browning gain by having his speaker be a real person? What does he lose? Compare "My Last Duchess" to "Porphyria's Lover," a poem with similar motifs but an undisputedly fictional cast.
b. If Browning truly meant the speaker to be the Duke, why did he decide to make the other two characters in the poem — Fra Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck — entirely fictional? Might he have planted them in order to deliberately confuse the reader? Would most readers in 1842 have recognized the connection between the poem and Alfonso II, and would Browning have wanted them to?
3. At the beginning of the excerpt, the speaker says, "Even had you skill | In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will | Quite clear." Does it feel odd or somehow contradictory when the speaker of a dramatic monologue declares his or her communication skills inadequate? Does his or her credibility as a narrator come into question as a result?
4. In the excerpt, Browning brings the natural desire to control and change other people to a horrific extreme. What, if any, specific dynamic might he be mocking (the way in which one group seeks to impose its morality on another: male dominance over women, religion, a certain societal group, etc)?
5. How does Browning's use of the second person affect the poem?
Modified 9 March 2009