My Last Duchess by Robert Browning – Summary and Analysis

Robert Browning is considered one of the best poets of the Victorian Era and his popularity is rested mostly on his 1842 collection of poems- Dramatic Lyrics. One of the most famous poems in this collection is My Last Duchess.

My Last Duchess has been called one of the most powerful dramatic monologues by Robert Browning. The poem is considered to be loosely based in the time of Italian Renaissance and on the life of the fifth Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso ll d’Este. He got married at the age of 25 to the daughter of Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was 14 at the time of her marriage. She died at the age of 17 after being allegedly poisoned by her husband. He then started to look for a new bride for himself, which has been discussed in My Last Duchess.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning

My Last Duchess Summary

My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue which is being spoken by the Duke of Ferrara to a courier who has brought a proposal from a perspective bride to him. The poem begins at a point where the duke is showing a painting of his last duchess to his listener.

The speaker of Browning begins by admiring the beauty of the painting of his last duchess and praises it as a wonderful piece of beauty. He then remembers the painter, Fra Pandolf, and says that he has been able to perfectly captured the beauty of his wife. The duke then remembers that when Fra Pandolf saw his wife, he was mesmerized by her beauty and the duke had to remind him to sit down while looking at her.

However, soon enough the reader of the poem finds out that the duke is a jealous man. He tells how he put a curtain to conceal her beauty from the world and only he himself was allowed to draw it. Gradually, the character of the speaker starts to become clear as he tells the various incidents that happened when his wife was alive.

The Painting of Lucrezia de' Medici (the Last Duchess)
The Painting of Lucrezia de’ Medici (the Last Duchess)

He starts by telling that the duchess used to exchange glances with all the people that she used to see. He also says that she used to start blushing upon seeing her husband, but this blush was not restricted to the look of her husband. He further said that she had a big heart, but it was too big because she used to smile at everyone that she encounters.

The jealousy of the duke immediately gets converted to narcissism when he says that the duchess did not even care about the nine hundred years old legacy of his name and smiled to all the men that she met. Obviously, the duke did not like it but he reveals that he was so proud to talk to her about it as he considered this domestic talk a trifle.

Finally, he comes to a point when he declares that he was so unhappy with her when she smiled at everyone that he gave a command after which her smile disappeared for ever. Saying that, he quickly moves to the topic of discussion and starts negotiating the dowry that he will exchange with his new bride. Further, he asks the listener to accompany him to the next painting in his gallery, when the poem ends.

My Last Duchess Analysis

My Last Duchess is a simple poem that has been written in a beautiful language to portray the complex character of the duke. The poem begins with the duke reminding his former wife with love and has a painting of her in his collection. However, soon the poem takes a darker turn and the complexity of the duke’s character starts to appear as he reveals his emotions of jealousy.

Soon enough, the loving and caring duke becomes a possessive husband who is enraged by the sexuality of her wife and her friendly behavior. He expresses that for a wife, such behavior should be only practiced with her husband. His obsession reaches a height when he reveals that he ordered to murder his wife because of her behavior with other men.

The narcissism of the duke is also a very important trait of his character that has been highlighted by Browning through his remarkable use of language. The duke is a very complex person who is almost vain about the legacy of his family. He proudly says that his wife did not admire that her husband belongs to a family with a nine hundred years old name and behaved nicely with everyone.

The Duke of Ferrara
The Duke of Ferrara

Towards the end as well, he moves on to showing the other paintings in his collection to his listener as if murdering his wife was not a big deal at all. He shows the painting of his last wife just like any other painting in his collection and narrates a story about it. Then, he admits that he killed her and mover forward very casually.

The beauty of the poem is not only contained in its complex narrative but also in its form and structure. The poem has been written in iambic pentameter and the lines have an unconventional ending. Each line of the poem is not an end of a sentence, a tool called enjambment that Browning has put to great use. This makes the poem a complex read and makes it resonate with the character of the duke. It is hard to predict what he will say next.

After a reader has read the poem, it becomes a series of psychological ups and downs. The character of the duke is revealed completely. The reader is forced to hate the duke for murdering his wife, but at the same time is impressed by his theatrics. On a subtle level, it also raises questions about the sexuality of the duchess and asks if her desire was a good reason to kill her. Reading a poem like this in the modern world is certain to make the readers feel a knot in their stomach, which is due to the content of the poem and heightened in effect by the writing style of Robert Browning.

Read PDF of My Last Duchess Poem

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