MY LAST DUCHESS – ROBERT BROWNING

RALUCA CRISTEA – 1ST YEAR
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Written in 1842 by Robert Browning, "My Last Duchess" is the dramatic
monologue of the duke of Ferrara who is negotiating his second marriage
through an agent of the count of Tyrol on the grand staircase of the ducal palace
at Ferrara in northern Italy. Executing the elements of a dramatic monologue, the
duke reveals his situation and much more than he intends to the both the agent
and the reader.
Using iambic pentameter AABB couplets, Robert Browning reveals the
horrifying story of the murder of the duke's previous wife through the duke's
conversation with the agent. As the duke attempts to paint an inaccurate picture
of himself to the agent, desiring to appear as a nobel, but abused and caring,
loving husband who had no choice but to murder his prideful, disrespectful wife,
the duke's true controlling, manipulative, jealous nature is revealed.
The duke's desire for control is made evident by the structure of the poem,
through his appreciation of art, and his response to the trivial incidences that led
to the death of his wife. The frequent use of caesura throughout the poem
emphasize the duke's control over the conversation. The duke's appreciation of
art reveals the control he has over the artists that produce his works of art; the
portrait of his last duchess and the statue of Neptune. Although the duke was
unable to control the duchess when she was alive, after her death he is in
complete control of her. The duke says "none puts by the curtain I have drawn for
you, but I," revealing that now he is able to control both the duchess's
countenance and who views the portrait by a curtain covering the portrait.
The duke's loss of control is also depicted through the rhythm of the poem.
The run over lines in the poem, or enjambment in the poem, reveal the duke's
nervous uneasiness over his wife's murder. For example, near the end of the
poem, the duke loses control. The reader can only imagine the horrified agent
rising to go down the staircase, the duke's uneasiness as he loses control, and
his desire to regain control of the situation as he says, "Nay we'll go down
together, sir".
The duke wants to appear as a hurt and abused husband whose
disrespectful wife left him no alternative but to kill her. However his appreciation
of art reveals that he values things that he can control and is contrasted with the
images of nature that surround the duchess. The "daylight in the West.....the
bough of cherries," and "the white mule," all natural objects that are associated
with the duchess' happiness. These images of nature are a sharp contrast to the
artificial objects the duke values. His unhappiness over the duchess' association
with nature is revealed in the line "I know not how--as if she ranked my gift of a
nine-hundred-years-old-name with anybody's gift". It is clear that the duke
believes that his name, something artificial, is of greater value than the natural
objects that cause the duchess joy.

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In the end it is the duke's loss of control that causes him to kill her. His
inability to control the live duchess herself, resulted in her death, and now all that
remains is another valued object, which he is in complete control of.
Using abundant detail, Browning leads the reader to conclude that the Duke
found fault with his former wife because she did not reserve her attentions for
him, his rank, and his power. More importantly, the Duke's long list of complaints
presents a thinly veiled threat about the behavior he will and will not tolerate in
his new wife.
In this dramatic monologue, Browning has not only depicted the inner
workings of his speaker, but has in fact allowed the speaker to reveal his own
failings and imperfections to the reader.
But Browning has more in mind than simply creating a colorful character
and placing him in a picturesque historical scene. Rather, the specific historical
setting of the poem harbors much significance: the Italian Renaissance held a
particular fascination for Browning and his contemporaries, for it represented the
flowering of the aesthetic and the human alongside, or in some cases in the
place of, the religious and the moral.
Thus the temporal setting allows Browning to again explore sex, violence,
and aesthetics as all entangled, complicating and confusing each other: the
lushness of the language belies the fact that the Duchess was punished for her
natural sexuality. The Duke's ravings suggest that most of the supposed
transgressions took place only in his mind.
Like some of Browning's fellow Victorians, the Duke sees sin lurking in
every corner. The reason the speaker here gives for killing the Duchess
ostensibly differs from that given by the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" for murder
Porphyria; however, both women are nevertheless victims of a male desire to
inscribe and fix female sexuality. The desperate need to do this mirrors the efforts
of Victorian society to mold the behavior--sexual and otherwise--of individuals.
For people confronted with an increasingly complex and anonymous modern
world, this impulse comes naturally: to control would seem to be to conserve and
stabilize.
The Renaissance was a time when morally dissolute men like the Duke
exercised absolute power, and as such it is a fascinating study for the Victorians:
works like this imply that, surely, a time that produced magnificent art like the
Duchess's portrait couldn't have been entirely evil in its allocation of societal
control--even though it put men like the Duke in power.
A poem like "My Last Duchess" calculatedly engages its readers on a
psychological level. Because we hear only the Duke's musings, we must piece
the story together ourselves. Browning forces his reader to become involved in
the poem in order to understand it, and this adds to the fun of reading his work. It
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also forces the reader to question his or her own response to the subject
portrayed and the method of its portrayal. We are forced to consider which
aspect of the poem dominates: the horror of the Duchess's fate, or the beauty of
the language and the powerful dramatic development?
One of the main themes in “My Last Duchess” is the pride.The speaker's
overbearing pride is incorporated into the very situation of Browning's
monologue. In it, the Duke addresses an inferior, the emissary of a nobleman
("the Count, your master") whose daughter he intends to make his second wife.
There are financial negotiations at stake—the matter of a dowry that the Duke
intends to collect from the Count. In fact, the Duke seems in the process of
acquiring in the next Duchess an "object," to use his own word. But the actual
amount of money is not the real issue. The Duke suggests that among
noblemen, whose behaviors are governed by “just pretense,” no reasonable
monetary request would be denied; the negotiations, then, are in one sense a
mere formality. In a second sense, however, money functions symbolically, both
in the Duke’s mind and for the reader trying to understand the Duke’s motives. In
his world, after all, people can be bought and sold, and the terms of their
existence can determined by those like the Duke who possess all the power in a
hierarchical society. Thus, the negotiations are really about the conditions under
which the Count’s daughter will become the Duke’s wife — conditions that
amount to, the Duke suggests, absolute submission to his pride.
In general, critics have agreed on many basic interpretive issues about "My
Last Duchess." William DeVane appears to voice common opinion when he
characterizes the last Duchess as an obvious victim—as "outraged innocence"
trapped in an age when "no god came to the rescue." Readers also easily agree
that the dramatic monologue works ironically, presenting a meaning at odds with
the speaker's intention: that is, the more the Duke says, the more he loses the
reader's sympathy. Critics also concur that “My Last Duchess” exemplifies two
important elements of Browning’s talent for dramatic monologue: his ability to
evoke the unconstrained reaction of a person in a particular situation or crisis and
his use of history to provide the appropriate historical context.
Many readers have also noted that the poet creates an important historical
context for the Duke, and the values he reveals, by setting the poem in
Renaissance Italy. Values that might strike us today and may even have struck
Browning’s nineteenth-century readers as unacceptable — possessiveness,
haughtiness, love of power — could have been expected in a Renaissance
aristocrat, thus accounting for at least some of the Duke’s self-importance. Along
these lines, several critics have praised the poem for its historical accuracy.
Robert Langbaum, in his 1957 book The Poetry of Experience; The Dramatic
Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, contends that “we accept the
combination of villainy with taste and manners as a phenomenon of the
Renaissance and of the old aristocratic order generally.”

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