The Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue written by Robert Browning in an Iambic pentameter. The poem is based during the Renaissance years in Italy and revolves around the Duke of Ferrara and his cruel disposition towards his late adolescent wife, the Duchess. The poem dwells along the lines of an intense framework of dark emotions and sentiments. Browning has successfully established a historical context shadowed by themes of overwhelming cruelty, deception, and domination through this.
Using a storyline as support, the poet has carefully created the image of a stereotypical Renaissance man and the status of women in the era. Not only that, but in an attempt to bring out these several aspects, Browning has channelled his intentions through the extensive use of literary devices such as enjambments, metaphors, synecdoche etc. This brings out an artistic touch to the poem, perhaps illustrating its connection to the Renaissance era. This essay will explore various aspects of this poem and critically analyze its relevance to the time context.
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The poem starts with a stereotypical Renaissance setting, of an art gallery, with the Duke showing off his extensive collection to a messenger. He finally comes to one of his most prized collections: a painting of his late duchess. The extensive use of personal pronouns in the stanza depicts the Duke’s inexorable possessiveness over his Duchess, as shown in the line “Since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” (Line 9-10, Robert Browning). The duke over complicates his duchess and looks way too deep for a certain sense of absolution for his wife’s ubiquitous courtesy and joy.
He doesn’t quite understand that she is ignorant of social status and the consequences of her actions. Browning conveys the Duke’s ungraspable despise for the duchess, for she is portrayed to be ignorant to the so-called ‘favour’ the Duke is doing for her by giving her a 900-year-old name. This is seen in the line “as if she ranked my gift of a nine- hundred-years-old name With anybody’s gift” (Line 32-33, Robert Browning). As the poem progresses, we see that the duke had gotten his wife killed out of pure hatred. Not only that, but keeping in mind that the duke is telling this blatantly to a messenger illustrates the duke’s confidence that no one would dare tell his secret.
Towards the end of the poem, we begin to realize that the messenger is, in fact carrying a marriage proposal for the Duke, which the duke unashamedly accepts, under the condition that he receives dowry. The poem is enriched with several interpretations; however, the more obvious of them seem to be the authoritarian dominance of a Renaissance man and simultaneously the commoditization of women of the time. Throughout the poem, we see that the Duke dehumanizes his wife to dramatic extents. In the line “I call that piece a wonder, now” (Line 2-3, Robert Browning), we see that the duke is not only referring to the painting but also his wife when she was alive.
The use of “that piece” inhibits one from believing that the duchess was a human in the first place. This line also shows the poet’s interpretation of the Renaissance, where women were treated as commodities. The last word of the citation above (“now”) clearly illustrates that only now, when she is manifested as a painting, does he like her, compared to his complete distaste for her previously, when she was alive. Finally, to illustrate the Duke’s uncontrolled possessiveness over his wife, Browning has made excessive use of personal pronouns, as seen in the line “(since none puts by The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” (Line 9-10, Robert Browning).
The last words, “But I,” re-emphasize the point. In the line “Fr Pandolf’s hands worked a day busily” we see that the Duke was so possessive about his wife, that he made sure that the artist viewed her for no more than a day, which is near to impossible. The main body of the poem acts as a build-up to the murder of his wife. He tries to give several reasons to justify his actions, but every one of them illustrates his ironic hypocrisy.
The line “How such a glance came there; so, not the first are you to turn and ask thus. But, Sir, ’twas not her husband’s presence only, called that spot of joy into the Duchess; cheek: perhaps Fr Pandolf chanced to say ‘her mantle laps over my lady’s wrist too much'” (Line12-16, Robert Browning), clearly illustrates how the Duke is trying to show that the Duchess provoked him and that the Duchess was unfaithful to him, which is bizarre, for she was only 14: her excessive “blush” was true, as was her “courtesy.”
Browning also explores another intense character of the Duke to add to his interpretation of the authoritative aspect of a renaissance man: that being his unwarranted, superfluous egoism and demand for respect. This can be seen in the line “As if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-year-old name With anybody’s gift” (Line 33-34, Robert Browning). This line shows the Duke’s annoyance with the Duchess, for she seems to appreciate everyone else in the same way as the Duke himself.
The Duke demands something extra; he doesn’t want to be equals with people less than him. This can also be seen in the line “Sir ’twas all one! My favour at her breast, the dropping of the daylight in the west…” where Browning portrays the Duke to believe that she treated everything equally; a necklace he gave her, and the sunset- it was all the same to her. Carrying on from the themes, we begin to see that Browning has also paid extreme attention to the structural component of the poem. He has written the poem in an Iambic Pentameter, indicating exactly ten syllables on each line.
This definitive nature, in a way, gives the poem a sort of rhythm and tempo. It keeps the reader gripped. Browning follows this up with the use of the rhyme scheme AA, BB, CC… The poem is structured in three different time contexts: the present, the past, and the future, which gives the poem a sense of purpose: it helps depict the Duke’s character in closer detail, for it communicates what the Duke feels during each period. The structure of the poem also helps establish the time context. For example, the setting of the poem is in an art gallery, and through this, we can see that the poem was set during the renaissance era, where art was appreciated immensely.
The tone and mood of the poem are, in a way, ominous and dark. The poet successfully establishes a sense of cruelty through lines like “I gave commands, and all smiles stopped.” This line brings out the certainty and the menacingly cold nature of the Duke’s character. For such trivial incidents, he got her killed, which illustrates the frustration that was boiling up inside him. The fact that the poem is a dramatic monologue also adds a lot to the mood and tone of the poem, for it brings out the immensity of the situation. Keeping in mind that the Duke is speaking out to a messenger, carrying a marriage proposal, when he tells him that he got his wife killed, we see that it is a direct threat to his new wife.
The darkness of the situation begins to sink in: he is not even afraid of admitting his sin; it is almost as if he is proud of it. Also, the fact that throughout the poem, the listener (the messenger) doesn’t say a thing gives the poem a sort of eerie feeling; it fabricates a great deal of visual, sinister imagery. TFinally, thediction utilized by Browning is exceptional- it manifests the tone, mood, and themes of the poem with a great degree of class and perfection. Lines like “Who’d stoop to blame this trifling” (Line 34, Robert Browning) illustrate the aristocracy in the Duke’s voice- as if to show that it is something too low for him to do.
The repetitive use of “stoop” clearly illustrates how powerful this sense of social status has been engraved in his mind. Words like “munificence” clearly illustrate the grandeur with which he speaks, which is contradictory and perhaps even ironic because he says he cannot speak well. Browning has ensured that every word carefully fits the profile: for example when the Duke implies that it is indefinite that he will receive a dowry, he uses the words “just pretence” to emphasize that no matter what he will get the dowry.
Browning takes the poem to great extents and engulfs the reader in a sea of symbolism- all the way from ideologies in the renaissance period to women as commodities. One of the most significant symbols in the poem is Renaissance art. While simultaneously illustrating the flourish of art in the era, Browning has also been able to depict the Duke’s temperament as a manifestation in the form of his taste in art. Towards the end of the poem, we see the Duke showing the messenger his extensive collection of art; one, in particular, is a sculpture of Neptune taming a sea horse.
The choice in art itself illustrates the Duke’s horrid sense of cruelty. However, this is not the only purpose of the sculpture; the Duke purposefully shows this to the messenger also to pose a threat to his future wife. The poem is enriched with imagery in all forms- lines like “the depth and passion of its earnest glance” (Line 7, Robert Browning), reveals a great deal of emotion and feelings, that the Duke has against the Duchess. The simplistic and yet meaningful language enables us, readers, to connect with the poem, and even visualize the setting.
The line “Notice Neptune, though, taming a seahorse” (Line54-55, Robert Browning) vividly symbolizes the Duke’s palpable condescendence towards women. The word “taming” in the citation perfectly depicts this, and also adds a sinister tone to the line. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the poem is the widespread use of literary devices. The first and perhaps the most important device used in the poem is irony. Browning establishes a thought-provoking contradiction and uses this to establish the dominance a stereotypical renaissance man had in society at the time.
Throughout the poem, the Duke talks about how the Duchess ranked him as an equal to people lower than him in the social hierarchy, which angered him. However at the end of the poem, we see the extent of his hypocrisy and double standards, which is manifested in the form of irony- we see that the Duke has all along been comparing the Duchess to a piece of art or other pieces of art- she didn’t get any special recognition when he introduced the piece of art to the messenger which was what the Duke claimed the Duchess was doing to him- giving him no recognition. We see hints of irony also when the Duke says he has no skill in speech.
Moving on from irony, we see that Browning also makes powerful use of synecdoche, to make everyone seem less humanly than the Duke himself. The line “Fr Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day” (Line 3-4, Robert Browning) hinders us from believing that Fr Pandolf was the person behind creating the painting, instead, it dehumanizes him. This creates a sense of eeriness and at the same time establishes the Duke’s bloated aristocracy. Another essential device used by browning is enjambments- they add a bit of suspense to the poem and ensure that the reader is captivated by the poem. This can be seen in the line “Fr Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day” (Line 3-4, Robert Browning). The enjambment in this line helps add to the tone and mood of the poem by fabricating a sense of graveness, and darkness.
On the whole, the poem, to me, seems to be a manifestation of several different aspects of history, ranging from the role of men in the renaissance era, and the oppression women went through during the time. Not only that, but Browning incorporates several other aspects as well, such as Renaissance art and beauty. The poem is enriched in literary devices and techniques which enhance the poem’s effect as a dramatic monologue. Browning has dug deep into the psyche of one particular man, and through the Duke’s own words Browning has been able to provide critical analysis of his character. This is absolutely magnificent, for he has been able to capture the exact tone and mood required, using the exact diction to portray his stand of the era.