My Last Duchess
As they look at the portrait of the late Duchess, the Duke describes her happy, cheerful and flirtatious nature, which had displeased him. He says, “She had a heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad… ” He goes on to say that his complaint of her was that “’twas not her husband’s presence only” that made her happy. Eventually, “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. ” He now keeps her painting hidden behind a curtain that only he is allowed to draw back, meaning that now she only smiles for him.
The Duke then resumes an earlier conversation regarding wedding arrangements, and in passing points out another work of art, a bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. In an interview, Browning said, “I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death . . . Or he might have had her shut up in a convent. ”  “Imaginatively, she is of the highest importance, practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. ” This forms the opening lines of Virginia Woolf “A Room of One’s Own”.
The woman is portrayed on similar lines in Browning’s monologue. “My Last Duchess” demonstrates Browning’s philosophy and mastery of the dramatic monologue; and delineates the character of the Duke of Ferrara in the process. The Duke of Ferrara is based on Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara in sixteenth century Italy. Browning’s monologues arise out of some critical situation in the life of the speaker, and project the reaction of the main figure in response to the significant moment. The envoy of the neighbouring country serves as the interlocutor.
In the process of self introspection, the person’s character is revealed in detail. The poem is concerning a painting of the Last Duchess, but in the process of describing the painting, the speaker ends up painting his own image. The poem in iambic pentameter embraces the technique of enjambment, which functions symbolically. Just as one line runs on to another, the words of the Duke connotes more than he denotes. The duke who is widowed comes across as an egoistic, pompous and callous person. The envoy belongs to a powerful Count and has come to negotiate marriage with the Count’s daughter.
The Duke lets him browse around the picture gallery, and introduces to him the portrait of his last duchess. The Duke, a typical Renaissance product, is proud of the portrait for its life-like resemblance. The duke displays his possessiveness as he claims that only he is allowed to uncover the portrait, and no one else. The Duke, a sharp observer, immediately perceives the question mark on the face of the messenger as he discerns the passionate look in the duchess’s eyes. The Duke defends any remark by stating that it was not due to any sort of guilty-love and he never left her with an opportunity to go wayward.
To substantiate, the portrait was not done by any ordinary artist, but by a monk. Moreover, he was provided just a day to complete it so that acquaintance would not grow into intimacy. The duke embodies the Renaissance Humanism famous for its “dispassionate analysis of texts. ” In contrast, the Duchess represents Browning’s Victorian Humanism where “beauty held to represent a deep inner virtue and value: an essential element in the path towards God. The Duke then goes on to describe his ex-wife, who was to easy to please and discovered pleasure in every aspect of life, She was indebted to people for the slightest of things.
She did not exert any ‘quality control’ that according to the duke was lack of dignity, decorum and self-esteem.. For instance, the reason for the roseate blush of joy on her cheek and neck cannot be attributed to her husband alone. If the painter commented that her cloak covered her wrist too much or that paint could not capture the pink glow on her throat, she would imbibe these as flattering remarks and go red in the face. As per the Duke, she was selfish as she was pleased too readily by trifles as a branch laden with cherries, the beautiful sunset or the mule presented to her by someone.
She reacted to these just as she would react to some expensive piece of embellishment gifted by the duke. The duke declares that she had no sense of distinction and discrimination. Therefore, she humiliated his ‘a nine hundred years-old-name’ that was the best thing he endowed upon her. The Duke’s rich heritage is a label for him to flaunt. “My Last Duchess” throws in sharp contrast the character of the duke who is inconsiderate and insensitive to that of the Duchess who is altruistic and amiable.
It dawns on us that the Duchess was killed callously as she could not suppress her individuality, and wanted to drink the spirit of life to the brim. The duke finds fulfillment in the fact that he has finally ‘owned’ her in the form of a portrait. The fact he attributes no identity to her is apparent in calling her ‘my last Duchess’ where she is reduced to statistics. She is not even provided with a ‘name’ that is the hallmark of one’s identity. Browning appears to have modeled her after Lucrezia de’ Medici, a daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-1574), Duke of Florence from 1537 to 1574 and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569 to 1574.
The duchess died under suspicious circumstances on April 21, 1561, just two years after he married her. She may have been murdered according to sources. The Duke also refers to the lady proposed as “my object”. Here, again the woman’s individuality is relegated to the background as she is reduced to a mere “object. The speaker also points out to the bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea horse , where the woman is yet again portrayed as an animal to be domesticated, and not as a rational being to be regarded.