“My Last Duchess” is a poem written by Robert Browning and originally published in 1842. It is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker is the Duke of Ferrara addressing a silent listener. The poem can be interpreted based on multiple approaches, the richest of which is the psychoanalytic approach.
The Duke appears to be a mentally disturbed (and disturbing) person in many ways. He describes his last duchess in a monologue in which he seems to be talking to himself due to the absolute absence of the listener – a trait only egotistic, narcissistic, and self-centered people possess; it is in sentences like: “Will’t please you sit?” that we distinguish the presence of the listener.
The Duke is not only an overprotective, jealous maniac (who apparently murdered his wife for smiling too much), he is also an arrogant aristocrat who only cares about himself, his title, and his wealth. It would appear that the murder the Duke committed (not even by himself, he “gave commands then all smiles stopped together”) was a premeditated murder.
It seems that it was planned all along, even when Fra Pandolf was invited to paint the Duchess, because the Duke wanted to get remarried (clearly for material reasons). The Duchess, naïve and flirty as she seems to be, fell into her psychopathic husband’s trap which led to her assassination.
Another disturbing expression in the poem is “there she stands as if alive,” an expression that the Duke uses at the beginning of the poem to describe the painting of the Duchess: a painting that cannot smile to other males anymore, that cannot disobey his orders, an object that he can use however he sees fit without any difficulties, and that belongs to him alone – just as he has always wanted her to be: an object of his own property.
By the end of the poem, one can describe the personality of the Duke with a long list of adjectives: narcissistic, ego-centered, mentally-disturbed, greedy, arrogant, narrow-minded, manipulative, materialistic, and worst of all, most likely a serial killer.
Robert Browning was known for writing mentally disturbed characters for whatever reason it may be. In this poem, one can deduce that he wrote the poem to highlight the issues of marriage and the inequality in relationships between men and women in the Victorian era.
Whether Browning talked in the voice of the Duke of Ferrara to portray the characteristics of an arrogant aristocrat, or whether this had something to do with Browning himself (as some critics theorize), he succeeded in giving a perfect image of a psychopath. After all, the line between insanity and genius is always blurry