The poem "My Last Duchess" wrote by Robert Browning is narrated by Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara in the 16th century. The duke is hosting an emissary whose main purpose of visit is to negotiate marriage proposals between the Duke and the daughter of a powerful family. We see that the Duke stops when they come across the portrait of the late Duchess. This happens when he is taking his visitor around the palace. The late Duchess, we are told, is young and very lovely. Through reminiscent, the Duke narrates the portrait sessions he had with the late Duchess. The Duke also talks about the Duchess and her disgraceful behavior. We are told that the Duchess flirted with everyone. She was also unappreciative since she didn't like the gift of the Duke, "gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" on line 33. As the Duke continues to unfold his own story, we realize that the Duke is the cause of the early death of the Duchess. He did this because of her unbecoming behavior. He ordered her death and this is seen in line 45 where we are told "I gave commands". The Duke having made these revelations, he returns to discuss the issue of the new marriage as he shows the emissary other artworks.
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In Depth Analysis
"The Last Duchess" composed by Robert Browning is a poem characterized by intrigue, mystery and murder. It is a monologue narration in which the speaker, the Duke, is seen to have murdered his wife. We are made to think or even believe that the Duke murdered his own wife out of jealousy.
The way the narrator narrates his story in a flowery manner confuses us and we are left to wonder the real motive behind her murder. The mystery of her death remains to be solved but through the structure, style and historical references in the poem, we come to understand that even though the Duke did not have a direct hand in the Duchess death, he was involved indirectly.
The effect of the poem is brought out very well by the style and structure the poet uses. The poet has used dramatic monologue and the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, we see him talking as if he is with another person. The narrator is seen to be controlling especially in the conversation itself. The narrator says that he was jealous because he could not keep the late Duchess' smiles to himself i.e. "E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose" (line42); "Never to stoop.Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt," (line43); "Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without" (line 44); "Much the same smile?" (line45). The Duke is seen to address a person in the poem directly i.e. "Will't please you rise?" (Line 47) and "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir" (lines 53-54).
The poet uses various techniques to explore the characteristics of the speaker and the situation being narrated. The poet has used a simple rhyme scheme of AA BB used in songs and ballads. In line 35-36, an ironical situation is created where the speaker says "Even had you skillIn speech--- (which I have not) ---to make your will". The speaker is seen to take control of the poem. The enjambed line when he talks of his wife's death gives us the feeling that he is not comfortable discussing this subject. He is rushing through some parts and the caesuras is a clear indication that the speaker is either pausing to think or he is hiding something.
The poem elicits many unanswered questions. The poem revolves around the Duke, the emissary and the portrait of the late Duchess. The Duchess died in unclear circumstances and the speaker tells us he could not condone her behavior. We are told that she was unfaithful and cheated on her husband. The Duke is therefore in the process of getting a new wife. The Duke makes us to see him as a good person by presenting his positive characters.
We are told that even though the Duke is very controlling, he could not control her and her smiles (line 43-45) "she smiled, no doubt, Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile?" The Duke feels that the painter did capture the true picture of the Duchess and that is why he likes this particular painting. The Duke was not able to own and control the Duchess' smile and love, but since she is long gone and it is only her painting which remains, the Duke is able to control it and its smile behind a curtain.
It is easier for the reader to believe that the Duke might have poisoned the duchess based on his suspicion of her unfaithfulness. The character of the duke is questionable since in his monologue, we understand him to be very controlling and jealous but in his own words, he presents himself as a very good person. This shows that he might be having other negative characteristics that we might not be aware of.
The historical character of the Duke is not clearly brought out. Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara did exist in Northeast Italy. His wife died in unclear circumstances two years into their marriage. The Duke was fond of sculptures and paintings. These two facts point to the same historical Duke even though the Duchess is not portrayed as a daughter of two powerful monarchs. Her death was suspicious but it was never proven that the duke had a hand in her death. This happened two years into their marriage when the Duke ascended to power.