Exhibitions of Power in ‘My Last Duchess’
“That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive” (Browning 1-2)
The Duke of Ferrara is the singularly compelling character in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” not only because the 28 couplets are his own dramatic monologue, but because in those 56 lines of iambic pentameter, he constantly espouses his own power. While at first glance, the poem appears to be focused on the unlucky subject of his painting, the work builds again and again to overt exhibitions of the Duke’s need to display his own power.
In an article entitled “The Piece in Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,'” Ashby Bland Crowder focuses on the beginning of the poem, specifically lines 2-3 “I call / That piece a wonder, now.” Crowder explains that the word “piece” is a throwback to the Renaissance when men would use “piece” to talk about women, and by including “now,” the Duke establishes that his previous wife only became a wonder after she was put on his personal wall (Crowder 390-391). For Crowder, that moment in tandem with lines 9-10 – “But to myself they turned (since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” – shows that the Duke revels in controlling who can see his last duchess (Crowder 390-391).
Crowder stops there, but there are many more examples of the Duke’s penchant for his own power to be found.
The Duke complains later, “She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (Browning 22-24). Here, his commentary is less about controlling his wife and more about her own lack of control. The rhetorical question; the repetition of “too” to signal excess; and the intentionally unspecific use of “whate’er” and “everywhere” builds his negative criticism of her free-flowing affection. He condemns her lack of focused attentions as an unforgivable flaw and poises himself as the master of control by being wise enough to recognize her excess. In his criticisms, he reveals his annoyance at being unable to curb her happinesses. He goes on to explain how
“Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this /
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss;
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so… E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop” (Browning 35-43).
This passage is eloquent, multi-pronged self-praise. Even though he could quite clearly express his precise problem with the duchess earlier in the poem, he debases his own ability to communicate, which seems unlike the arrogant character we have already come to know and love (or hate). However, he underscores his own debasement by further qualifying the skill in speech that he lacks by saying “to such a one” (Browning 37). Here, he paints his duchess as the one who is impossible to communicate, successfully avoiding bringing any blame on himself. Later, when he reveals that he was the one who had her killed, his reasoning has already been explained with this passage. She cannot be reasoned with.
The next prong of praise lies in “if she let herself be lessoned so,” as the Duke fashions himself as a teacher or parent of an unruly student (Browning 41-42). It’s inherently a claim of superiority as he passes judgment on her ability to learn and his ability to teach. It further solidifies the idea that the duchess was difficult to communicate with as well as the idea that the Duke is the one with the knowledge. This comparison allows the Duke to assume the qualities of a teacher: wisdom, knowledge, and superiority. All of those values only add to his power.
The Duke goes on with outrage at how his duchess would react similarly to his favor, the sunset, some cherries and a white mule (Browning 25-29).
“… As if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift” (Browning 32-34)
The jealousy here becomes apparent. As Dohmnall Mitchell states, “his wife fails to distinguish between different classes and between different classes of objects… This lack of distinction is insulting, perhaps even threatening, to a man whose importance and arrogance are derived from his social position” (Mitchell 74-75). For his wife to not reserve a special affection for him alone threatens the Duke’s level of control. If he cannot tame his wife of all people, the one person whom he has complete legal and financial control over, then inherently his actual level of control appears diminished.
“Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her, but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 43-46)
Here, the Duke’s power is fully called into question. The poem takes on an ominous turn as the pace slows with punctuation and interjection. When he admits to having her killed, he does not say so in such easy terms; instead, synecdoche comes into play, and he uses her smile to encompass her being. It is a nod to her happiness and joy at the world, but in this context, the Duke judges that kind of unbridled joy to be less valuable than his own power, which her joy threatens. It is uncontrollable and therefore a threat, as Mitchell states, to his social status. A man who cannot contain the affections of his wife, especially such a legally powerful one, could become a laughing stock, a fool, or a cuckold, which could damage that status.
His own arrogance, though, seems more at stake, as his jealousy fully comes to fruition. Her lack of unique affection for him is the nail in her coffin. Positioned where it is, the “but who passed without / Much the same smile?” line, is presented as the last bit of evidence, the final straw, as to why the Duke gave his command to kill her. To let anyone or anything else make her as happy as her husband becomes her chief fault, her deadly sin, and the Duke’s own perceptions of his power prove to be the sole motivator of his actions.
In fine form, the Duke ends his dramatic monologue describing another work of art he has.
“Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (Browning 54-56).
Imagine that image: a god taming a tiny sea creature. A seahorse is far from threatening, just like his duchess. Therefore, to go along with such an analogy, the Duke becomes Neptune. With his actions toward his deceased duchess, it is only right that the poem ends with the Duke and his power being equated to that of a god.
- Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: 4th ed, vol. 2B, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar et. al., Pearson Education, Inc. 2010, pp. 1328-1329.
- Crowder, Ashby B. “The Piece in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess.” Notes and Queries, vol. 59, no. 3, 2012, pp. 390-391.
- Mitchell, Domhnall. “Browning’s My Last Duchess.” Explicator, vol. 50, no. 2, 1992, pp. 74-75.
Bronzino, Agnolo. Portrait of Lucrezia De’ Medici. 1560. North Carolina Museum of Art.