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Robert Browning is the author of "My Last Duchess" and he shows the audience how it is a dramatic monologue. In a class lecture, the professor had mentioned that the poem is set in the 15th century. During that time, it was common for a young woman to be arranged in a marriage. As the poem unfolds, the audience learns the speaker of the poem, Duke Ferrara, is talking to another male character and begins to tell the story of his previous wife. As they are standing in front of the portrait of the Duke's last wife, now dead, the Duke talks about her imperfections. The reader discovers that the ex-wife's "imperfections" were qualities such as generosity, courtesy to those who served her, and an overall respected woman. What follows are examples on the nature and personality of the Duke.
Browning lets the reader to believe that the Duke has found flaws of his previous wife because she did not respect his rank and his power. More importantly, the Duke did not approve the behavior of his previous wife and will tolerate it again. As the story begins, the Duke is speaking to the other male character about the portrait of his previous wife. A painter by the name of Fra Pandolf had painted the portrait and it is said that Pandolf's hands may have wandered as well. The following lines can make the audience wonder about the relationship between Pandolf and the Duke's ex-wife. "That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands" (lines 3-4). The Duke is now left to wonder that if his ex-wife and Pandolf may have had a relationship of some sort. In the poem, the Duke does not reveal the painting to any person. He is the only person that is allowed to reveal the portrait from the curtains that cover it. Although he does not show anyone the portrait, the Duke had revealed the painting to the other character.
"The depth and passion of its earnest glance
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst" (8-11).
The audience is learning very early in the poem that the Duke questioned his relationship with the Duchess in the portrait. It is at this moment in the poem that the Duke begins to tell the reasons he did not trust his ex-wife.
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The poem implies that the Duchess' cheek is rosy in the portrait, but it is not from her husband's presence. The Duke and the other character begin to have a conversation,
"Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
He husbands' presence only, called that spot
Of Joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantel laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much" (13-17)
Not only does the Duke begin to wonder about the portrait, but also he then begins to list flaws that the Duchess had. According the Duke, these flaws were not qualities that other "real" Duchess' would have. Because this marriage may have been appointed, the Duchess may have not learned the lifestyle of a "true" Duchess as other young women may have learned. The next few lines can sum up on the "flaws" that the Duchess had.
"The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,--good; but thanked
Somehow...I know not how...as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name" (27-33).
When the reader is reading the passage, it is obvious to see that the Duke has listed many "flaws" of the Duchess. A man had picked some cherries from orchard and she had ridden around the land in a mule. A Royal family usually rides around on a horse, not a lower class animal such as a mule. A family with such high class does not do physical labor such as physically go to the orchard. The Duchess was very courteous to the help around the house because she would thank them for their work. In other terms, the Duke did not believe that the Duchess was not mean enough. The people that worked for the family respected the Duchess because she was very kind to them, but in the 15th century, people were divided into class systems. The Duke and Duchess were highly ranked whereas the servants ranked at the bottom so it was very common for the high class to be snobby and rude to others.
As the poem continues, the Duke explains how he would see the Duchess smiling at everyone. He says,
"Oh, Sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I have commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive (43-47).
It is obvious that this statement in the poem shows that the Duke does not trust his own wife. The Duke believes that just because she is generous to all the people that she encounters that she is disobeying him, his honor, and ranking. The poem never states that the Duke had his wife murdered, but it is implied and the other character is able to sense that he had done so. As the poem nearly ends, the Duke makes a statement, "Sir! Notice Neptune, though, / Taming a sea-horse, though of rarity" (54-55). It seems that the Duke is comparing his past Duchess and future Duchess' to be as if it where to tame a seahorse. The Duchess' is a generous, kind woman and this poem shows that she was the victim.
In conclusion, the Duke believes that his ex-wife was not loyal enough and did not meet the standards of a Duchess. Therefore, he had his wife murdered. The ex-wife is the victim although she had not done anything wrong. The question remains: Will the next Duchess meet the Duke Ferrara's standards? If not, she too will be a victim. Although the Duchess had not met the standards, the Duke too is a victim. Will a Duchess ever meet his standards? The Duke had murdered a sweet, innocent, generous young woman because she did not meet the standards of a Duchess at that time. Therefore, the Duke has lost a genuine woman due to 15th century standards.