The Power of the Duke in "My Last Duchess"

by , 2004

In Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," a portrait of the egocentric and power loving Duke of Ferrara is painted for us. Although the duke's monologue appears on the surface to be about his late wife, a close reading will show that the mention of his last duchess is merely a side note in his self-important speech. Browning uses the dramatic monologue form very skillfully to show us the controlling, jealous, and arrogant traits the duke possessed without ever mentioning them explicitly.

The first two lines of the poem introduce us to the main topic of the duke's speech, a painting of his late wife: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive." We immediately begin to suspect that the duchess is no longer alive, but are not sure. The clever language Browning chose suggested that something was wrong, but left enough ambiguity to quickly capture our attention as readers. Also in these lines, we are given our first hint that the duchess really not all that important to the duke; he speaks of the painting as if it was the duchess, suggesting that his late wife was nothing more than her external appearance. Instead of the painting looking as if it were alive, the duchess looks as if she were alive. Again, this seemingly small detail gives a significant hint about what lies ahead in the poem.

While the duke describes the history of the painting, he mentions the artist's name, Frà Pandolf, three times (lines 3, 6, 16). The first mention of the name was all that was necessary to let the listener know who painted the work. The words the painter or the artist could easily have been substituted for the second two. The way in which the duke repeatedly mentions the name Frà Pandolf suggests a self-pride in the fact that he was able to hire such a famous painter. Frà Pandolf is actually a fictional name, but we can assume that in the poem he is a celebrated artist. The duke repeats his name as a form of bragging about his wealth.

The duke also shows off his control in the beginning parts of the poem. He adds a parenthesis in his speech, "since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I" (lines 9-10). Here he says that nobody but him has the power to display the painting. But this is obvious and did not need to be said. Since the painting is in his home and he owns it, of course he is the one who would draw the curtain to display it. He only adds this statement to highlight his control. As the poem progresses, we find more mention of the duke's love of control and realize that it is a very important thing to him. This line also is important because it shows that the duchess (now in the painting) is under complete control of the duke and can only be seen by others when he wishes it.

It was the lack of control that the duke felt over his wife that caused him to kill her. "She had/A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed" (lines 21-23). The duke felt that his wife was too appreciative of the attention that other men paid her. He did not openly accuse her of adultery, but condemned her flirtatious behavior. He claimed, "all and each/Would draw from her alike the approving speech,/Or blush, at least" (lines 29-31). To the duke, it seemed as if every man who passed his wife elicited a special, intimate reaction. The duke wanted his wife to smile at no one but himself.

The climax of the poem occurs in these lines where he describes what happened when his wife's affection continued to be non-exclusive:

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. (lines 43-46)

The duchess' smiles to the other men aroused an anger in the duke so powerful that he gave commands to have her killed. His jealousy stemmed from his perceived lack of control that he had over his wife. Now that she was dead and existed only in the painting, he could have absolute control over her. His controlling nature overwhelmed his morality and love for his wife. I think Browning chose to have the duke speak about his wife not because she was important to him, but because the story of her murder displayed the controlling character of the duke so well. The unemotional and nonchalant way in which the duke tells the story further accentuates his character.

The final lines support the suggestion that the duchess was not the main focus of the poem. The duke says to the emissary that he has been speaking to as they are leaving his house, "Notice Neptune, though,/Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,/Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me" (lines 54-56). The duke's description of this statue is strikingly similar to that which he gave of his duchess' portrait. He again highlights the name of the artist and the rarity of the work. And, we can assume that although this is the end of the poem, it is not the end of the dialogue between the duke and the emissary. Just as we did not receive the beginning of the conversation from Browning, we do not receive the ending. It is quite possible that after the poem ended, the duke continued went on to describe the statue of Neptune in as much detail as he did the portrait. The poem focused on this segment because it best highlighted the duke's controlling character.

The arrogance of the duke was best exhibited by subtle comments that he made throughout his speech. He scoffed at the idea that his former duchess could rank "My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody's gift" (lines 33-34). Here, the duke made it sound as if he was being generous when he agreed to marry his wife. He felt that she should have recognized more clearly what a wonderful gift he had given her. Just a moment later, he reasserts his superiority by stating that "I choose/Never to stoop" (lines 42-43). The duke feels that he is too important to even be bothered with small annoyances. He will not stoop to the lowness of asking his wife to cease a behavior that is obviously upsetting him. Instead, he orders someone else to kill her because even the act of killing her is beneath him.

Even in statements that on the surface appear to be humble, the duke furthers his arrogance. He says, "Even had you skill/In speech--(which I have not)--" (lines35-36). There is a great deal of irony in this statement that overwhelms any modesty that might have existed. The duke's claim not to have skill in speech lies in the middle of a speech expertly constructed with rhyming lines, regular meter, and imperious diction. An AABB rhyme scheme is found regularly throughout the poem. Extemporaneously coming up with the words necessary to carry out such a rhyme scheme would require a great deal skill in speech. An iambic pentameter is used throughout almost the entire speech. This also requires a fair deal of skill, for even though iambic speech is common in English, keeping it so well regulated is difficult. Finally, the diction further shows the skill of the duke. He chooses words that express his authority and his education along with what he was trying to say. The duke knows that he has great skill in speech and he also knows that the emissary knows this. He is only saying that he does not possess skill in speech because he knows that his audience will not believe him. His show of modesty is merely an illusion, not true modesty.

The overarching irony in Browning's "My Last Duchess" is that it really is not about the duchess, but instead about the controlling, jealous, and arrogant nature of the duke. In his monologue describing a painting of his former wife, the duke introduces us to his dark and sinister qualities. By giving us the Duke of Ferrara as an example, Robert Browning subtly condemns the nobility for their poor character.