“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning comes from an actual historical incident. In the sixteenth century Italy, Duke Ferrara married fourteen year-old Lucrezia, who died within two years. The Duke courted and soon married someone else. The Duke is believed to have poisoned his wife so that he could marry the other girl.
The speaker in the poem is the Duke himself. His speech is highly structured. Control is a part of his personality, so as he speaks, it is obvious that Browning makes the reader believe that the Duke chooses his words carefully. He would be considered an unreliable narrator. He tells only his side of the story. As the poem progresses, it becomes obvious that the Duke has lost touch with reality.
The setting for the poem is Italy in the sixteenth century. The specific setting is the palace of the Duke in a gallery which contains his private collection.
Browning described this poem as a “dramatic lyric.” Today, the poem would be called a dramatic monologue because the Duke does all of the speaking. The poem is written with rhymed couplets. The rhyme scheme would be AABBCCDD, and so on. With this pattern, Browning demonstrated the control of the Duke over and his viciousness towards his late wife.
The primary themes of the story connect together through the personality of the Duke. Browning intended to illustrate the power that was available to the Duke in the time period. His control included the complete dominance of his wife. She was his possession as much as his lands were.
To add to this theme, the duke is controlled by his jealousy concerning his wife’s attention to anyone other than himself. He does not like the artist giving his wife such a smile with a blush. He wonders about the person that she is looking at and giving attention to. Every smile and blush unless it is for him drives him to distraction. He is so upset by her behavior that the only way to fix the situation was to murder his Duchess.
The Duke brings a servant of a Count up to his private gallery to show him the picture of his last Duchess. The picture portrays a beautiful young woman with a smile and blush on her face. The Duke was told that the artist asked for her to smile for the picture.
- The Duke begins to criticize his wife.
- She smiles for someone else in the picture.
- She was too easily made happy and looked around too much.
- She thanked people for gifts much the same as she thanked her husband.
- She did not appreciate the respected aristocratic name that he had given her by marrying her.
- She did not respond to his lessons in behavior nor listen to his commands to stop smiling.
The Duke continues on to say that he stopped the smiling. In her picture, she looks as if she were alive.
And if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse…
He asks the man to accompany him back downstairs. On the way out, he brags to the man about a statue that was built for him. The reader learns that the Duke is courting the Count’s daughter, hoping to marry her. He does not care about the dowry, just the daughter.
This is an interesting poem which illustrates the strange behavior of the Duke who has obviously had his wife killed for insane reasons. The overall effect of the poem comes from the man who does not hesitate to kill his wife because she displayed her joy of life.
Iambic Pentameter Couplets
Browning himself described this poem as a "dramatic lyric" – at least, Dramatic Lyrics was the title he gave to the book of poems in which "My Last Duchess" first appeared. The "dramatic" part of the poem is obvious: it has fictional characters who act out a scene.
The "lyric" part is less clear. "My Last Duchess" doesn’t read like a typical lyric poem. Its rhymed iambic pentameter lines, like its dramatic setup, remind us of Shakespeare’s plays and other Elizabethan drama. But it is about the inner thoughts of an individual speaker, instead of a dialogue between more than one person. That makes it more like the Romantic lyrics that came before it in the early part of the nineteenth century – stuff by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley that are all about the mind of the individual. So, really, Browning’s title Dramatic Lyrics says it all. "My Last Duchess" is what would happen if Shakespeare’s Macbeth married Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and they had a baby. It’s a hybrid of a play and a poem – a "dramatic lyric."
As for meter, "My Last Duchess" uses the rhythm called "iambic pentameter." Iambic means that the rhythm is based on two-syllable units in which the first syllable is . . . oh, drat, your eyes are glazing over. Stay with us here. Okay, an iamb goes "da DUM," like that. Pentameter means that there are five ("penta") of those in a line. Listen: "There’s MY last DUCHess HANGing ON the WALL" – that’s iambic pentameter. Okay, okay, you could argue that "on" shouldn’t be stressed and so forth, but that’s the basic idea.
Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, some people like to claim that iambic pentameter is the most "natural" rhythm for the English language to fall into, and that we often speak in iambic pentameter without noticing. Nobody’s ever really been able to prove this, and probably nobody ever will, but it’s a persistent "myth" about meter, so you should know it’s out there. It also means that lines written in iambic pentameter feel conversational to us. If you listen to someone read "My Last Duchess" aloud (check out our "Links" section for some online audio recordings by contemporary poets and scholars), you might not even notice that it has a fancy meter, because it sounds more like normal speech than some other poetry does.
The other thing about iambic pentameter, like we said before, is that Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists used it in their plays. Browning, a very highly educated writer, knew this, and his decision to use this meter in a poem that already feels sort of like a play is a direct allusion to the patterns of monologues (speeches made to others) and soliloquies (speeches made while alone) in drama. "My Last Duchess" is more of a monologue than a soliloquy, because there is a character listening to the Duke in the poem. He’s not speaking his thoughts aloud to himself while he’s alone, the way Hamlet does.
Of course, although the iambic rhythm makes us think of Elizabethan drama, the rhymed couplets (pairs of rhymed lines that occur together) of the poem keep tying the Duke’s speech into tidy packages, even though his thoughts and sentences are untidy. Both Shakespeare and the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth used iambic pentameter without rhyme, a form called blank verse. But Browning introduces couplets into the mix. We think you can probably guess why it might be more appropriate for the control-freak Duke of Ferrara to speak in harsh, structured, rhymed lines than in unrhymed ones.