My Last Duchess

In Robert Browning’s poem–“My Last Duchess”–the speaker (presumably the Duke) is giving a servant of his prospective wife’s family a tour of his home. He draws a back a curtain to reveal a concealed painting of a woman by Fra Pandolf, explaining that it is a portrait of his late wife. The Duke invites his guest to sit and look at the painting, and as they look at the portrait of the late Duchess the Duke describes her. Throughout the whole explanation of his late wife’s actions, one may get the sense that the Duke believed he owned his wife.

Browning’s use of twenty-eight rhyming couplets maps the characterization of the Duke–the rhyming in the poem implying the Duke’s frivolous mindset regarding women. Usually, children’s nursery stories and songs have words that correspond in sound. Rhymes are typically in more with Mother Goose tales, than in a recollection of one’s dead wife. Thus, the rhyming in the poem suggests the Duke doesn’t take the death of late Duchess very seriously and with much grief.

The fact that lines 43-46, “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. There she stands…” rhyme is a little disturbing. Browning makes the Duke lightheartedly, poetically and with distinctive style tell the servant that he is the one who caused the Duchess to stop smiling. It seems as though the Duke gets a pleasure from giving a command and having it obeyed immediately.

If the Duke believed his late (and noticeably unnamed) wife was so easy to manipulate, it puts her in a place of subservience and objectification. No longer is the late Duchess a young-woman with feeling, but an aesthetically pleasing entity that is to work to please him. This exposed the Duke’s misogyny. The dramatic use rhyme makes the horrifying information of the Duchess’ passing sound colorful–reinforcing the idea that the Duke is not the best man to marry, and he’s mainly out for his own self-interest.

For example, Browning ends a rhyming couplet with the word “I”: “But to myself they turned (since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”. That gives the impression that in the end, in the end of the glamorous facades, in the end of the “justified” manipulation of his previous wife, all the Duke really cares about is himself. If the Duke only cares about himself, he’s not going to look out for his new Duchess’ well being–and perhaps the same fate of his last Duchess might befall her.

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