English Literature
My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess

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The Duke's Disdain in 'My Last Duchess': A Look into the Mysterious Circumstances of His Late Wife

In Robert Browning's poem 'My Last Duchess', the Duke is consumed with dissatisfaction towards his late wife's cheerful and lively nature. One may wonder why this is so and how she met her end. In this piece, we will delve into the enigmatic circumstances surrounding the Duke's wife and investigate the real-life events that inspired this haunting poem.

'My Last Duchess': A Brief Introduction

Originally published in 1842, this poem written by Robert Browning follows the structure of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of AABB, commonly known as rhyming couplets. Browning's use of allusions, enjambment, and rhetorical questions adds depth to the poem, while the frequent imagery of smiles and blushing effectively conveys the Duke's ominous, threatening, arrogant, and possessive tone. Through exploring themes of relationships, gender expectations, jealousy, and possessiveness, Browning invites readers to reflect on the treatment of women as mere possessions within marriage.

The Context of 'My Last Duchess'

To fully comprehend the poem, it is crucial to consider the biographical, historical, and literary contexts in which it was written.

Biographical Context

After Browning's early poem 'Pauline: A fragment of confession' received criticism for being too personal, the poet decided to use narrators as a distancing device in his future works. In 'My Last Duchess,' the Duke of Ferrara serves as a vessel for Browning to express the intense emotions of jealousy and make a statement about societal expectations for women in marriage.

Historical Context

It is widely believed that the characters of the Duke and Duchess may have been loosely based on the real historical figures of Alfonso II d'Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, and his wife, Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici. Rumors suggest that Lucrezia died just three years after their marriage, sparking speculation that the Duke may have had her poisoned. This poem alludes to this speculation and delves into the Duke's motivations.

Given the context in which the poem was published, it's worth considering the Duke's perception of his wife as a mere possession that he could dispose of at will. During the 19th century, women's wealth and property in England were automatically transferred to their husbands upon marriage, further solidifying the idea of women as commodities to be acquired alongside wealth and desirable social connections.

Literary Context

As both a playwright and a poet, dramatic monologue was a prominent feature in Browning's works. 'My Last Duchess' is a prime example of this style.

Analysis of 'My Last Duchess': Decoding the Poem

The Poem

The opening line "That's my last Duchess painted on the wall" sets the scene, with the speaker pointing to a portrait of his late wife that hangs on the wall. He proudly notes that the artist, Fra Pandolf, captured her as if she were still alive. The Duke invites the listener to sit and admire the painting, mentioning that he specifically requested the artist's name to be included, as strangers often inquire about the Duchess's "earnest glance."

However, the Duke reveals that only he has access to the painting, as he has drawn a curtain to conceal it from others. He implies that the Duchess's gaze may have been too intense even for visitors to see, and he takes pleasure in this power and control over her image. He then hints at the reason for having Fra Pandolf paint her, stating that the Duchess's joyous expression was not solely due to his presence.

The Duke suggests that the Duchess may have been swayed by the artist's flattery or his comments about her clothing. He dismisses her joy as mere courtesy, implying that she was easily delighted and too easily impressed by everything and everyone around her. He reveals that his attention and gifts were not unique, as anything or anyone could draw her admiration and approval. The Duke's possessive tone conveys that he views the Duchess as a prized possession rather than a person with her own agency.

In Conclusion: Uncovering the Themes of 'My Last Duchess'

'My Last Duchess' is a thought-provoking poem that delves into the themes of possessiveness, jealousy, and gendered expectations in marriage. By exploring the historical context of the poem, readers can gain a better understanding of the Duke's perspective and the societal norms that influenced his character.

'My Last Duchess' by Robert Browning: A Chilling Exploration of Gender Roles in the 16th Century

In Robert Browning's famous poem, 'My Last Duchess', the Duke of Ferrara attempts to impress a wealthy Count by showcasing a portrait of his late wife. However, his words reveal much more about him than he intends, exposing the gendered expectations and toxic possessiveness of the 16th century society.

Through the use of dramatic monologue, Browning skillfully portrays the Duke's inner thoughts and feelings, painting a disturbing picture of a man who manipulates and controls those around him for his own gain.

The Power of the Dramatic Monologue

The form of dramatic monologue is used to great effect in 'My Last Duchess', as the Duke's words slowly strip away the facade of a nobleman to reveal a deeply flawed and dangerous individual. By unintentionally revealing his true self, the Duke not only exposes his own negative traits, but also hints at his possible involvement in his wife's death.

Poetic Techniques

The title of the poem, 'My Last Duchess', hints at the central theme of the Duke's late wife. It sets the tone for the poem and captures the reader's attention from the start.

The poem's structure, a single stanza with 56 lines, mimics a one-sided conversation between the Duke and the envoy. The use of enjambment and rhetoric adds to the sense of a monologue, as the Duke controls the narrative and the envoy serves merely as a sounding board for his twisted thoughts.

The Duke's polite commands, such as 'Will't please you rise?' and 'Will't please you sit and look at her?', highlight his need for control and serve as a constant reminder of the envoy's presence. The poem ends with the Duke and the envoy rejoining a larger company, leaving the reader to ponder the chilling revelations.

The AABB rhyme scheme reflects the Duke's desire for order and his need to maintain control, in stark contrast to his late wife's free-spirited nature.

Browning also uses rich imagery to evoke memories of the Duchess and her untimely death. The imagery carries connotations of female emotions and sexuality, highlighting the theme of male control over female desire.

  • Half-flush that dies along her throat represents the Duchess's natural and innocent expression of emotion, but through the Duke's twisted perspective, it becomes sinister and distorted.
  • That spot of joy on her cheek, which the Duke attributes to her husband's presence, is twisted into a negative light, suggesting a flaw or blemish on the Duchess's character in the Duke's eyes.

Through poetic devices, Browning masterfully portrays the Duke's possessive and dangerous nature, offering a chilling commentary on gender roles and control in the 16th century society. 'My Last Duchess' serves as a haunting reminder of the progress that has been made towards gender equality.

Unveiling the Controlling Nature of the Duke in 'My Last Duchess'

Robert Browning's 'My Last Duchess' is a thought-provoking poem that delves into the themes of gender roles, control, and possessiveness. The Duke of Ferrara's words reveal his true nature as he discusses his late wife, offering a glimpse into the societal expectations and toxic masculinity of the 16th century.

The Duke is fixated on maintaining control over his wife's sexuality, visibly disturbed by her openness to male attention and desires. This highlights the gendered expectations of the time, where women were expected to be subservient to their husbands and not express their own desires.

Another prevalent theme in the poem is jealousy and possessiveness, as the Duke becomes increasingly agitated at the thought of his wife showing affection to other men. This desire for a special and superior relationship with his wife ultimately leads to her tragic end.

Symbols in 'My Last Duchess'

The Duke's controlling nature is symbolized through the figure of Neptune, the Roman God of the sea who is known for taming seahorses. The Duke proudly shows off a sculpture of Neptune controlling a seahorse, representing his need for complete control over his possessions, including his wife.

The Symbolism and Themes of Possessiveness and Jealousy in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"

Through the Duke's monologue in "My Last Duchess", Browning exposes the true nature of a controlling and possessive man. As he proudly displays a painting of his deceased wife, readers witness the toxic dynamic of their marriage and the underlying themes of possessiveness and jealousy that ultimately lead to the Duchess' demise.

Key Takeaways from "My Last Duchess"

  • "My Last Duchess" (1842) is a poetic monologue that uncovers the Duke's possessive and controlling nature.
  • The inspiration for the characters and events alluded to in the poem may have been based on the historical figures of Alfonso and Lucrezia of Ferrara.
  • Browning uses rhyming couplets to add a lyrical quality to the poem.
  • The imagery of blushing and smiling highlights the themes of societal expectations and power dynamics in gendered relationships.
  • The poem sheds light on the ways in which men sought to exert control over women's lives and desires during the Victorian era.

The Dark Themes of Possessiveness and Jealousy

"My Last Duchess" delves into the possessive and controlling nature of the Duke of Ferrara, as he proudly displays a painting of his late wife to a visitor. Through his words, readers witness the prevalent themes of possessiveness and jealousy in their marriage.

The Duke's possessive nature is evident in his focus on the Duchess' "smiles" and "blushes" being reserved solely for him. He also displays a need for complete control over her behavior, as he mentions ordering her to "choose / Never to stoop" to acknowledge the other men who may admire her. This possessiveness ultimately leads to the Duchess' murder, as the Duke could not bear the thought of her affections being shared.

The underlying theme of jealousy is also present throughout the poem. The Duke is resentful of the Duchess' supposed flirtatious behavior and is unable to trust her. This jealousy fuels his desire to exert dominance and possession over her, even in death.

In Conclusion

"My Last Duchess" is a powerful poem that delves into the dark and destructive themes of possessiveness and jealousy. Through the Duke's character, Browning highlights the harmful consequences of seeking to possess and control another person in a relationship. This cautionary tale continues to be studied and interpreted today.


  • Richard H. Chused, 'Married Women's Property Law: 1800-1850', New York Law School (1982).
  • Oxford Learner's Dictionaries (2021).

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