My last duchess.
This story of a man who has, out of Jealousy and insecurity, disposed of his wife, most likely by murder, is chillingly told by Browning through the voice of the murderer himself In a dramatic monologue. Throughout, Browning turns the speaker’s words against himself: the apparently all-powerful narrator loses control of his narrative, Just as he lost control of his wife, and must kill his story In order to continue In his plans to gain another wife. Browning sets this story In Renaissance Italy, specifically in Ferrara, which is named in the poem’s subtitle.
The specific time-period is not named, but the names of the artists mentioned in the poem recall famous painters such as Fra Angelico and Fra Lippo Lippi, who lived in the quattro – and cinquecento in Italy. This period is renowned not only for the flourishing of artistic talent and the production of beautiful works of art (often of surprising verisimilitude) but also for violence, intrigue and murder: indeed, Ferrara itself, seat of the d’Este family, was a byword for fabulous displays of artistic and architectural taste alongside appalling brutality.
These ideas embody the violence and materialism at the heart of the story, and which, It Is hinted, motivated the Duke’s murder of his last Duchess. The Immediate setting for the story is an upper chamber In the ducal palace, away from the ‘company below, and Browning uses this as a means of making his narrator a more Intlmldatlng character, capable of dominating the Isolated and socially Inferior audience (the Count is, we are told our ‘master’). The use of a setting which amplifies the Duke’s power is a key aspect of Browning’s narrative method here, in that the ower belies the weakness and insecurity which cause the Duchess’ death.
The final image of ‘Neptune, taming a sea-horse’, ought to be a final flourish for the Duke in his theatrical show for the listening envoy, yet this detail of the setting is emblematic of Brownings irony at work throughout the poem: whereas the Duke sees the ‘rarity as a sign of his wealth and good taste, and also as a representation of his ability to tame’ a wild animal, he does not see the irony in him taming a creature as tiny and harmless as a sea-horse.
Browning begins his story with the Duke presenting a icture of his ‘last’ Duchess to an envoy, In a bld to Impress upon him his power and good taste, and ultimately, to ensure winning the Count’s daughter’s hand In marriage.
Even in the first line, though, the Duke’s choice of language undermines himself: his confident statement of That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’ ought to establish a domineering voice (and, to an extent, it does, developed through relentlessly rhyming couplets), but the undertones of the word ‘last’ appear to escape him – he ought, perhaps, to have said ‘late’, but this word establishes his materialism nd shallow ostentatiousness, which cause the reader to mistrust his version of events.
In the subsequent discussion of the picture Browning sets up the scene and many of the central questions of the story. The Duke’s apparently offtand mentioning of the artist’s name sits uneasily with his need for control over the curtain (which ‘none puts by but l’) establishes the contradictions Inherent in the narrative voice.
The subsequent account of what the Duke Imagines Fra Pandolf saying to his Duchess Introduces the question over the Duchess’ sexual fidelity which will feature trongly later in the story, when the Duke mentions the ‘spot of joy” which was not only called up Dy ner nusDan0’s presence. ‘ Browning tells tne story 0T tne Duke ana Duchess’ marriage, and of the incidents which led to her death, in a loose, apparently unstructured series of allegations made by the Duke about her ‘smile’, which Went everywhere’, and her heart, which was too soon made glad. Tellingly, the reader finds it hard to sympathise with the narrator’s evident indignation, expressed in the outburst ‘Sir, twas all one! , when all that the Duchess stands accused of is loving the dropping of the daylight in the West’ and ‘a bough of cherries’; to the Duke it seems that these are evidence of feminine weakness, if not actual infidelity, but the reader’s mistrust of the Duke invites them to see the images simply for what they are: examples of nature’s unfettered beauty.
It seems that Brownings intention here is to distance the audience from the narrator, so that we are inclined to view his actions more dispassionately and critically: by doing this, Browning makes the Duke’s final ccusation – that of his wife undervaluing his ‘nine-hundred-years-old-name’ – seem ridiculous. The narration of the murder itself is preceded by a passage of speech which is in marked contrast to the controlled refinement of the narrator’s voice in the early stages of the monologue.
His phrases become fragmented, broken by asides such as ‘l know not how, and the repetition of ‘stoop’ (or forms thereof) three times in is used by Browning as conveying the impression of frustration and even anger in the narrative voice. With each repetition, the narrator’s grip on the narrative weakens. Significantly, whereas the Duke relates the Duchess’ behaviour earlier as a series of apparently emblematic incidents, at this stage he resorts to generalising, asking Who passed without / Much the same smile?
What ought to be the final, damning indictment of the Duchess’ infidelity, becomes instead, a damning indictment of the narrator’s selfish insecurity. Browning recounts the Duchess’ death (or, at least, disappearance) in a striking moment of only two lines, where the narrator appears to egain his control over his version of events. The series of short phrases, interspersed with semi-colons, has an air of grim finality, and it may appear that the narrator is smugly self-satisfied with his actions. Certainly, given the claustrophobic setting of an upper chamber, isolated from the ‘company below, the intention seems clear.
However, it is hard to see his character as being dignified and impressive, when he seems more impressed with the ‘commands’ he gave, and the fact that it is ‘smiles’ which stopped. Here, Browning exploits the ambiguity of the word ‘smile’ hich was created by the Duke itself: where he appears to intend it to stand as a euphemism for sexual infidelity, it remains in its literal meaning an innocent and charming action, and it is in keeping with Brownings method throughout the poem to invite the reader to see it as such.
Browning concludes the story on a chilling note, with the Duke’s narration regaining the polished, icy control that characterised the early parts of the monologue. The return to the present tense at Will’t please you to rise’ reminds the reader that they are a character in this drama, and Browning uses his to make the Duke’s attempt to gain a new wife all the more unsettling.
The Duke’s appeal, phrased in impossibly oblique and opaque terms, for a dowry, is certainly baffling, but Browning here hints at a sub-text which the Duke has thus far omitted from the story: the Duke appears to need money. Whether or not he is in dire financial straits, the collocation of money and the fair daughter’s self makes for a disturbing conclusion, appearing to sum up the Duke’s brutal objectification of women, In wnlcn tney are sllencea