[Adapted from Glenn Everett, "You'll Not Let Me Speak": Engagement and Detachment in Browning's Monologues"]
How do we read "My Last Duchess," one of the most representative dramatic monologues? The old "sympathy/judgment" model does not seem to work very well. Langbaum, the main proponent of this view, finds that the Duke's
immense attractiveness . . . his conviction of match less superiority, his intelligence, and bland amoral ity, his poise, his taste for art, his manners, overwhelm the envoy, causing him apparently to suspend judgment of the duke, for he raises no demur. The reader is no less overwhelmed. We suspend moral judg ment because we prefer to participate in the duke's power and freedom, in his hard core of character fiercely loyal to itself. (83)
Hazard Adams points out that sympathy does not seem to be the right word for our relationship to the Duke (151-52), and Philip Drew protests that suspending our moral judgment should not req uire "an anaesthetizing of the moral sense for the duration of the poem" (28). Langbaum is right that the intellectual exercise of inferring the real character of the last Duchess from what the Duke says about her to the envoy and then going on to make a moral judgment about him constitutes a large part of our enjoy ment of the poem, but that enjoyment is not dependent upon our entering into sympathy with the Duke.
Rather, we enter into this scene on the side of the envoy, and at that level we feel the pull of the Duke's commanding rhe toric. In order to read the poem, we must create the scene in imagination, which means "losing ourselves" within it, forget ting, for the moment, our real, present surroundings in favor of active involvement in the dramatic situation. Our entry is facilitated by its most striking feature, which is the way the Duke so directly addresses us. His narrative in the center of the poem is carefully framed by the first ten lines and the last ten, in which he addresses someone as "you." Because we do not discover until after he has told his tale that this second person is in fact present in the poem, at the moment of our reading we can only assume that it is us to whom he is speaking. (It is true that we eventually discover that this "you" to whom he is speaking is an envoy from a Count, but this identification is not made until very late in the poem.) We are slightly disoriented, on a first reading, by that direct address, and we recognize that an effort is being made to suggest that we are the silent partner in a conversation; even the omission of quotation marks helps sustain the illusion that we have encountered a character who is speaking directly to us. Trusting that our curiosity about what is going on in the poem will keep us reading despite our lack of information about the character of the auditor, Browning leaves us only one source for that information, the Duke's monologue.
Modified 22 September 2003