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 repeated...
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...g 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.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Making Literature Matter. Ed. John Schilb, and John Clifford. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 1376-1378.
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