Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” – Published 1842 Our world is changing and evolving at an astounding rate. Within the last 200 years, we have seen two World Wars and countless disputes over false borders created by colonialists, slavery, and every horrid form of human suffering imaginable!! Human lifestyles and cultures are changing every minute. While our grandparents and ancestors were growing up, do you ever think they imagined the world we live in today?
What is to come is almost inconceivable to us now. In this world, the only thing we can be sure of is that things will change. With all of these transformations occurring, it is a wonder that a great poet like Robert Browning may write words so many years ago, that are still relevant to you and I in today’s modern society. Browning’s first dramatic monologue “My last duchess” was written during the Italian Renaissance when egotism, marriage and aristocracy influenced the society.
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The monologue is loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century. The Duke is the reciter of the monologue, and tells us he is entertaining an emissary who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage (he has recently been widowed) to the daughter of another powerful family. As he shows the visitor through his palace, he stops before a portrait of the late Duchess, apparently a young and lovely girl. The Duke begins reminiscing about the portrait sessions, then about the Duchess herself.
His musings give way to a diatribe on her disgraceful behaviour: he claims she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his “gift of a nine-hundred-years- old name. ” As his monologue continues, the reader realizes with ever-more chilling certainty that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess’s early demise: when her behaviour escalated, “[he] gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. ” But Browning has more in mind than simply creating a colourful character and placing him in a picturesque historical scene.
Rather, the specific historical setting of the poem harbours much significance: the Italian Renaissance held a particular fascination for Browning and his contemporaries, for it represented the flowering of the aesthetic and the human alongside, or in some cases in the place of, the religious and the moral. Thus the temporal setting allows Browning to again explore sex, violence, and aesthetics as all entangled, complicating and confusing each other: the lushness of the language belies the fact that the Duchess was punished for her natural sexuality.
The Duke’s ravings suggest that most of the supposed transgressions took place only in his mind. Like some of Browning’s fellow Victorians, the Duke sees sin lurking in every corner. The reason the speaker here gives for killing the Duchess ostensibly differs from that given by the speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” for murder Porphyria; however, both women are nevertheless victims of a male desire to inscribe and fix female sexuality. The desperate need to do this mirrors the efforts of Victorian society to mould the behaviour—sexual and otherwise—of individuals. ———————————————— For people confronted with an increasingly complex and anonymous modern world, this impulse comes naturally: to control would seem to be to conserve and stabilize. The Renaissance was a time when morally dissolute men like the Duke exercised absolute power, and as such it is a fascinating study for the Victorians: works like this imply that, surely, a time that produced magnificent art like the Duchess’s portrait couldn’t have been entirely evil in its allocation of societal control—even though it put men like the Duke in power.