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Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright during the height of the Victorian Era (1812-1889). Most contemporary interest in his works are based on his dramatic monologues, in which Browning crafted the words to convey their meaning, but in layers of psychological and psychosocial analysis about the character based on what was said in what context. The work "My Last Duchess" is a seminal example of this type of poetic/literary work, and appeared in 1842 in Browning's Dramatic Lyrics (Armstrong, 1996).
One of the most often repeated themes in literature is the manner in which major figures exhibit pride, hubris, and other human frailties but seem to either be oblivious to their immorality, or believe that their station allows them a separate rule of ethics than the common person. This is apparent in many great works of literature, from the Ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and even the modern cinema. Robert Browning's classic poem, "My Last Duchess" is such a work - it has all the intrigue, passion, and flavor of a modern soap opera, but is set somewhere in the Renaissance, likely to show the audience that while time marches on, the emotional and psychological frailties of humans do not.
The work itself consists of 28 rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. It is set in the late Renaissance, and we believe the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara and his bride the wealthy, but not necessarily noble woman. It also appears that the Duke is in conversation with an unnamed marriage broker, and that his first wife is dead from perhaps mysterious causes.
Like many great works of art, "My Last Duchess" can be read in numerous ways, and interpreted in a number of social and cultural paradigms. The poem is termed to be a dramatic monologue because it has a formal structure: a speaker, a listener, and an occasion. Additionally, the poem is meant to be heard by someone in the audience, an implied judge. Formally, this may be seen in the manner in which the narrator directs everyone - "Will't please you rise?" (562) or "Nay, we'll go together down, sir" (562). In the story, this lack of the Duke being able to control his wife's emotions, her smile for instance, may have been part of his growing disdain. And, since the poem begins with a type of elegy, the audience is first tricked into thinking that it is out of love that this ode appears: "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall/ Looking as if she were alive. I call/That piece a wonder, nowâ€¦" (561). And shades of jealousy immediately appear: "And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,/How such a glance came there; so not the first/ Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not/Her husband's presence only, called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess's cheekâ€¦" (562).
The voice in the poem is formal, too, in that it is a mixture of both lyrical prose and dramatic dialog. The voice is male, typical of the era, and describes a woman, but never actually quotes or gives voice to that woman. We only know the character of the wife in what is said about here - and without a great deal of frill or emotion. Still, the narrator is almost on a soap-box, lecturing to his audience: "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 wit's to yours, forsooth, and made excuse/ E'en then would be some stooping, and I chose/ Never to stoop (562).
It is also interesting to note that Browning encourages the audience to understand that there are multiple perspectives to understanding this one event. Fra Pandolf, for instance, is used in a number of his works as an outside judge of character and morality. In the Duchess he appears as a nostalgic turn, and perhaps the moral conscious of the Duke: "That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands/ Worked busily a day, and there she standâ€¦/ Will't please you sit and look at her? I said/"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read/ Strangers like you that pictured countenance" (561).
Finally, what is certainly clearest is the Duke's overriding arrogance and feelings of superiority. He continually uses the works "My, mine, me," personal pronouns focused on his own needs. Can we every trust the words of someone who has the arrogance to attempt to eulogize his dead wife to the visitor (the marriage broker for a new wife), but contrasts this with the idea of heading to the depths of the sea: "Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed/At stating is my object. Nay, we'll go/ Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,/Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,/Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me" (562).
Thus, we see less of a development of character in the Duke, and more of an unveiling of the type of person he is. As the poem moves forward, his mask begins to fall away and we see his greed and selfishness even more. By the end of the poem, some of his comments make us think that he might be somewhat responsible for the wife's death - certainly we know that his initial and very public, despair is really not true.