The poem “My Last Duchess” was first published in 1842 and has since become one of the most popular poems by Robert Browning. It is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and the character of the speaker is, most probably, based on Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century (Marchino). In the poem, the Duke is arranging his second marriage and shows a portrait of his last Duchess to a silent interlocutor who is there on behalf of the Duke’s prospective bride. The Duke’s monologue reveals more than the speaker intends and suggests that he might have killed his last Duchess because of grounded or ungrounded suspicion of unfaithfulness. The story told by the Duke demonstrates that the line between love and violence can be very thin if love is accompanied by jealousy, possessiveness, arrogance, and egoism; in this case love just does not exist – it gives place to violence completely. From this it follows that if one wants to love, they should be ready to give up their ego.
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Jealousy is usually caused by possessiveness, a desire to exercise total control over the loved one, and the Duke of Ferrara unintentionally reveals his possessive attitude to his wife. The very first lines of the poem reveal that the Duke views his last Duchess as an object that he possesses: uncovering the portrait he says, “I call / That piece a wonder, now” (Browning 2-3), and it unclear whether he means the painting or the Duchess by “that piece” – both are merely objects in his collection. By adding the word “now” the Duke also reveals that his “insistence on control is better satisfied by the portrait” than by the living person (Negrut 151). The Duke also hints that the same fate is waiting for his next wife: she should obey him in every respect. First, the Duke refers to her as “my object” (Browning 53), then he turns the attention of her representative to a statue of Neptune “taming a sea-horse” (Browning 55). Evidently, he is going to ruthlessly tame his wife, and if she resists she may literally become an object of art just as the last Duchess. As Charles notes, “within fifty-six lines [the Duke] uses seventeen first-person pronouns,” and this unequivocally tells about his possessiveness.
The Duke’s arrogance only intensified his jealousy and possessiveness. He believed that he had the natural right to exercise total control over everything and everybody within his reach. His outrage is caused not only by the Duchess’ “too easily impressed” heart (Browning 23) but by the fact that she seemingly ranked his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift” (Browning 33-34). He evidently believes that his name is worth more than anything else that she could get. He is not even able to talk openly to his wife about the things that disgust him because he finds such a conversation humiliating and he chooses “Never to stoop” (Browning 43). In his arrogance, the Duke even “sees himself as a god who has tamed/will tame his Duchess,” for the image of Neptune is undoubtedly a parallel with the Duke (Charles). He finds it beneath his dignity to talk to his wife, but his pride is silent when he commands to kill her, in all probability. The Duke “considers himself superior to others and above law and morality” (Marchino). This suggests that were he not so arrogant, his marriage would have had more chances for success, and his love would not have transformed to violence.
With all his jealousy, possessiveness, and arrogance, the Duke appears to be a very egoistic person. Nothing concerns him as much as his own self. His egoism makes him a tyrant “whose wife should have been made glad only by his presence, a wife whose heart should have been impressed only by him and who should have liked and looked only at him” (Negrut 152). He sees nothing beyond his ego and teats almost everything as a potential threat to his ego. Not once he mentions how his wife might have been feeling about their marriage; he is only concerned with his feelings. He never even mentions love; “instead, he emphasizes that it is his curtain, his portrait, his name, his commands, and his sculpture” (Charles). His swollen ego produces all his jealousy, possessiveness, arrogance, and finally violence; the only thing it fails to produce is love.
It may be asked even whether the Duke ever loved his wife given his absolute concentration on his ego and whether there is any intersection of love and violence or only violence grown out of arrogance. Indeed, complaining about the Duchess’ behavior, he never states that she betrayed his love – rather, that she betrayed his precious “nine-hundred-years-old name’ (Browning 33). Still, the Duke’s jealousy and hidden admiration of the Duchess’ beauty suggest that there was some place for affection. The Duke never openly admits that, but the unsaid in this monologue is even more important than the things that are said, as it reveals the truth about the speaker (Negrut 150). He mentions “The depth and passion of its earnest glance” (Browning 8) and her “pictured countenance” (7) with the evident admiration. However, this feeling is easily driven out by less plausible considerations. The smiles of his Duchess are able to produce anger but not love in his heart because “who passed without / Much the same smile?” (Browning 44-45). There is no place for love in the heart obsessed with jealousy and possessiveness.
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The affection finds a different form to express itself, and what could have been love turned out to be violence. The Duke “gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 46). It is questionable whether a murder took place since the Duke does not explain what kind of comments he gave. Explaining this line, Browning said, “the commands were that she should be put to deathâ€¦ or he might have had her shut up in a convent” (qtd. in Charles). Whatever may have happened, the intention to prevent the Duchess from smiling altogether is a deed ruthless enough to talk about violence, even if a murder was not committed. The commands were caused by the Duchess’ smiles – a strange reason for a murder or even for shutting a woman up in a convent. Evidently, the Duke’s arrogance and egoism made him overestimate the importance and the meaning of those smiles, which finally lead to his violent commands.
It appears that the blame for the failed marriage rests totally on the Duke and not on his wife regardless of whether she was in fact faithful or not. If the Duke was not so jealous, the courtesies that others gave to the Duchess would not have outraged him so much. If he was not preoccupied with exercising total control over his wife, her blush or smiles which appeared on her face without his permission would not have infuriated him. If he was not so arrogant, he would just have talked to his wife about the behaviors of which he did not approve. If he was not so egoistic, he would not have failed to consider his wife’s feelings. The Duke would possibly have had all chances to find love and happiness in his marriage if he had the willingness to abandon his ego. However, this did not happen and his unrealized love turned into violence. The story told by Browning is a powerful reminder that love is impossible without self-sacrifice and that a failure to subdue one’s ego will result in love giving place to violence.
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