My Last Duchess
3 Frà Pandolf: Brother Pandolf (in other words, the artist who paints the duchess is also a priest).
6 by design: i.e. deliberately.
16 mantle: robe or shawl.
25 favour: a ribbon, rosette, brooch or small piece of jewellery (i.e. some small gift).
33 nine-hundred-years-old name: i.e. his aristocratic name goes back to the dark ages, the seventh century.
42 E’en: even.
49 munificence: generosity (with money).
54–55 Neptune … Taming a sea-horse: i.e. this bronze sculpture portrays the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, taming a mythic sea-beast, a sea-horse. Neptune was often portrayed as a barrel-chested strong-man.
This poem is not imagined spoken by the poet (Browning himself) but by a character he has invented, a powerful Italian Duke of the sixteenth century. It is a dramatic monologue, i.e. it is like one speech from one character in a play (only here the rest of the play is left out).
The Duke leads the person he is talking to upstairs to the first floor of his palace, where he keeps a rich art collection. Drawing back a curtain (10), he reveals a portrait of his first wife, in which she has a special expression on her face, an “earnest glance” (8), a “spot of joy” (14–15). The Duke now tells his listener about this first wife, and the history of his relationship with her.
Here the poem is ironic. The Duke, from his tone and manner, expects us to consider his treatment of his first wife perfectly normal. In fact the Duke emerges as a monster of jealousy, ego, and sadism. His wife was a joyful and spontaneous woman who delighted in life: she loved a brooch she wore (25), she loved the sunset (26), cherry blossom (27), her pet mule (28). But the Duke was never happy with her: he is terribly proud of his ancient aristocratic name and rank, and he thinks that his wife should have focused all her attention on him. He is so arrogant, that he couldn’t even bring himself to tell her off, “to make [his] will / Quite clear to such a one” (36–37). To teach his wife her duties as a wife, would have seemed humiliating to him, to have involved “some stooping” (42). Instead, really getting annoyed with her, and unable to discuss the matter, he simply gives “commands” (46) to some hired roughs, and has her locked up secretly somewhere, or, more likely, simply murdere.
The Duchess vanishes – all the people in the court, however, are shocked (“all smiles stopped together”, 46), but they are too scared of the Duke and his power to actually do anything about it. Now, something even more terrible emerges. The Duke is negotiating himself a second marriage, to the beautiful daughter of another nobleman, a Count (49). The person he is talking to is in fact an ambassador or messenger from the Count, who has come to negotiate the marriage dowry. The Duke knows the Count is rich, and is looking for a lot of money to be paid to him on his marriage, though he graciously pretends that he is only interested in the Count’s “fair daughter’s self” (52) not the money he will get with her.
At the end of his speech, he invites the ambassador to go downstairs with him. As he does so, he points out another one of his favourite works of art from his collection: a bronze sculpture of the sea-god Neptune brutally taming a sea-horse. It is an image of power and domination. Implicit, here, is the idea that the Duke sees himself in these terms: he has dominated his first wife, tried to train her as you would an awkward horse, and when she proves difficult, he’s simply had her killed. But is all this just his macho fantasy of strength and domination? In fact, this bullying man seems really rather awkward in his dealings with women. He couldn’t cope with a three-dimensional, living, breathing woman. He’s reduced his first wife to an art object. Even so, and even though she is dead, she still seems to annoy him, if only in memory.
The Duke, the speaker of the poem, appears urbane and in control. In fact, the poem presents a disturbing psychological portrait of him. We are dealing with a sadist and a murderer, someone using his total authority to dominate the people around him. This is a disturbing glimpse into a sixteenth-century world. Surely not all the dukedoms of Italy in the era just before Shakespeare were quite as frightening as this?!
Suggestions for teaching and appreciation
Should the poem really be called “Confessions of a Serial Killer”?
The poem presents us with a short story in verse, or a kind of one-act play. Can we really get inside the drama? In this dramatic monologue we only see the events from one viewpoint, that of the super-jealous husband who is the Duke. Let’s think about the other people in the drama. What was it like to be the painter, Frà Pandolf, called up by the Duke to paint his wife? Did he want to do the portrait? Was he frightened of the man who had commissioned it?
The Duchess herself was an innocent young girl, married in an arranged marriage to a man much older that herself, who then turned out to be so strange, a very dominating man. Did she ever really understand her husband? Did she sense his annoyance with her, or not? What was the moment like when his hired assassins came to drag her off to her death?
What’s it like to be the Count’s ambassador or messenger? You have been sent by the Count to begin negotiations leading towards the marriage of the Count’s daughter and the Duke. The Duke escorts you up to his art gallery, and then makes this speech to you. What do you make of it? Does the real meaning of his words gradually dawn on you? Are you horrified to discover yourself in the presence of someone, in effect, confessing himself to be a murderer? Or, are you so used to the power of aristocrats, that you are going to keep everything to yourself? If the Duke killed his wife, that’s his business? You just want a quiet life, and you’re going to go back to the Count and tell him what a lovely man the Duke is, and what a good husband he’ll make for the “fair daughter”!
And, then, there is the future. When, some time after the events of the poem, the Duke marries his next duchess, what is she going to discover? Will she submit to him properly, and survive? Or is the Duke really on the way to becoming a serial-killer? Imagine what it would be like to be the Count’s daughter – the Duke’s next wife, or victim.