My Last Duchess is a mysterious dramatic monologue about a Duke of Ferrara who is showing off a portrait of his late wife to a visitor of his home.
While showing this portrait of his last Duchess, the Duke begins to reminisce on their lives together, and, although he chooses his words carefully as he speaks, he ends up telling the visitor more than he realizes.
By doing so, he not only reveals information about his former wife, but he sheds light on his own character, including possibly admitting to her murder.
The Duke, in a conceited manner tells his listener “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall…” (Browning 1) He is proud and is boasting about the many Duchesses he had in his life.
He goes on to say, “the depth and passion of its earnest glance…” (8) making us wonder about his true feelings toward someone he refers to as “it”. Already we sense that he is speaking about an object rather than a person he has loved. The Duke provides us with a grumbling list of his Duchess’s unfaithfulness and ungratefulness throughout their short marriage.
He reveals his jealousy as he mentions that she seemed to catch other men’s eyes. He says she was “too easily impressed…she looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” (24) Here, we get the idea that she was a very beautiful woman and he was afraid of losing her to another man.
The Duke also reveals his possessive nature. Not only was he afraid of losing her, we also get the impression that he is more concerned over his loss of control over her. The Duke reveals his arrogance by stating “…as if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.” (33-34)
His vanity and pride are obvious here as he speaks of his noble heritage and how the Duchess did not seem to respect this “gift” he has given her. He expected her to be proud of the name she acquired through him and to flaunt it.
Throughout the monologue, the Duke also gives the impression that he is admiring the artwork and appears to have more of a relationship with the painting than his former wife. “I call that piece a wonder, now…” (2-3)
Maybe he only married his last Duchess to have her portrait hang in his gallery. The portrait is a work of art that he alone can both possess for his own pleasure and at the same time restrict who can view it.
Near the end of the monologue, the Duke seems to forget that he is telling the story to his visitor and hints that he ordered someone to murder his last Duchess. “This grew; I gave commands…” (45) Here, he implies that he became annoyed with her for ignoring him, so he gave orders for her to be killed. “…Then all smiles stopped together.” (46)
The Duchess appears to have been killed so that the Duke would not have to watch her befriending others. The painting is once again a reminder that he is in control of her life. The Duke then shows the listener the statue of Neptune taming the sea horse that was made for him. Neptune, the god, is a reflection of the Duke.
Just as Neptune tames the sea horse, so too does the Duke wish to tame and control his Duchess. His Duchess is an object, a possession.
Throughout the dramatic monologue, the Duke reveals his pride, his vanity, and his need for control. His arrogance and jealousy stem from his aristocratic ancestry and we, the audience, see him as a shallow human being unable to ever show true love to his Duchesses.
Aker, Don, and David Hodgkinson. Language and Writing 11. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2002.
Lancashire, Ian. “Representative Poetry Online”. University of Toronto Libraries. 2009 <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/288.html>.