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“My Last Duchess” Poem by Robert Browning


The poem, “My Last Duchess” was written by Robert Browning in 1842. The work can be described as one that’s the prime example of a dramatic monologue in the form of a poem. The dramatic monologue, as a genre is a self-conversation that is presented from a particular character’s point of view. This can be surmised from particular lines of the poem, including: “A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad” and “Will’s please you rise? we’ll meet the company below, then” (Meyer and Miller). The use of first-person and the fixed perspective of the piece are prime examples of a dramatic monologue. Furthermore, the only way that the present audience gets to understand the character of the Duke is through his own words and speech pattern, which is another sign of a dramatic monologue. The main character of the poem, the Duke shows his visitors a portrait of his late wife and further describes her to them. The audience for the Duke’s speech can be seen as a part of the poem’s universe, or as the readers themselves. The poem is wholly written in the first person and highlights both the character of the Duke himself and his wife. Thematically, the piece deals with topics of patriarchy in societies of the past, as well as the objectification of women. Women were often seen as disposable both in literary media and in real-life settings, being used as an accessory for men and the subject of their control. The Duke himself is largely portrayed as a stereotypical man of that time period, concerned with keeping “his” lady in line and regulating the way she expresses herself and how she interacts with others. It can be argued that a man’s dissatisfaction with his wife is what caused her death in the first place, and the author of the poem strongly implies that conclusion.

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The Subject of the Poem

The poem mainly revolves around the Duke and his late wife, who is depicted on a portrait the man is describing to an audience. The Duchess is described as a bright and cheerful person, easily impressed and full of childlike wonder. While the audience members might think of it as a positive quality the Duke finds it to be disheartening, as it means that the woman shows excessive attention to other men’s actions. He complains about her showing the same amount of appreciation to others as she does to him, which makes the Duke considerably jealous. He finds it unacceptable that his own efforts, no matter their cost or the importance he holds for them, are held in similar regard to gestures from other men. The smiles, attention and cheerfulness the Duchess shows towards other people is met with hostility and the need to establish control over her. It can be understood that the Duke does not view his wife as a fully independent person and does not allow himself to see her as anything more than an extension of himself. The commands given by the Duke in the middle part of the poem can be understood as either him prohibiting her from smiling or outright killing the woman, which would explain why she is referred to in the past tense. The objectification the Duchess suffers at the hands of her husband can be even witnessed in the way he remembers her as a portrait. For the man, his wife was just another possession, a means of acquiring control and something to brag to others about.

The main audience for the Duke’s speech is the diplomat who can be considered a substitute for the audience and partly his own character. If the inclusion of the Diplomat can be considered to be an attempt to actively engage the audience in the narrative. If seen this way, then the diplomat is a character that breaks the 4th wall. The 4th Wall is a concept in literature and media that refers to a distinction between our reality and the fictional reality in which the rules or conventions may be different from our own. If a writer explicitly refers to the existence of a real-world audience or acknowledges that the fictional universe is fictional, that can be seen as breaking down the barrier between the creation and its recipients. The usage of the reader as an audience for the Duke’s speech is the prime example of a broken 4th wall, which allows the audience to be more fully immersed in the narrative, and also gives the poem a fresh spin.

Arguments can be made about the Involvement of the Duke in the death of his Duchess. As it is implied throughout the work, the man was severely unhappy with how his wife behaved, and the way she showed interest in people other than him. The jealousy and the need to establish hierarchical control over the woman could have been a sufficient motive for the use of violence as a way to stop the Duchess from acting in a way the Duke disliked. The main argument in favor of this reading can be seen in the Duke’s line about commanding her. It is stated that “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” (Meyer and Miller). The abrupt and sudden change in Dutchess’s behavior can be seen as both uncharacteristic and weird. Coupled with the way that the man refers to her as dead right after that strongly implies that he had something to do with her passing, and might have orchestrated her death as a way to punish her for inappropriate behavior. During the course of the poem, the man does not show any remorse or sadness over the woman’s passing, treating her portrait as just another piece in his extensive gallery. During the last few lines of the work, he redirects the reader’s attention to his other works of art, equating the life of his late wife with just an object.

Works Cited

Meyer, Michael, and D. Quentin Miller. Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. Bedford/St. Martins, 2020. Print.

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