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My Last Duchess Analysis

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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" (1-2). 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, FrÐo 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 FrÐo Pandolf suggests a self-pride in the fact that he was able to hire such a famous painter. FrÐo 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" (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" (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" (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. (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" (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

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