My Last Duchess -- Robert Browning

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Robert Browning was one of the famous poets of the 19th century (Victorian period). He's particularly well-known for his early monologue, "My Last Duchess."

Dramatic Monologue

"My Last Duchess" is a great example of dramatic dialogue, a poetic form used to narrate and dramatize Victorian concerns. As a convention, each dramatic monologue should include:
  • A fiction speaker/audience
  • A symbolic setting
  • Talismanic props

  • Dramatic gestures
  • An emphasis on speaker's subjectivity
  • A focus on dramatics
  • Problematics of irony/non-irony
  • Involved reader's role-playing

The Background of "My Last Duchess"

The poem, "My Last Duchess," is based on incidents in the life of Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara in Italy. The duke's first wife, Lucrezia, died in 1561--after they'd been married for 3 years. The background of the poem is interesting, but the text can be difficult to understand. The use of dramatic monologue works to separate the speaker from the poet (Browning), which forces the reader (you) to work hard to understand the words of the speaker and thus, hopefully, get a grasp on what the poet is saying.

We learn about the Duke by what he says and how he says it. Through him, we also learn about his wife, the last Duchess. We decipher something of how their relationship stood, what his expectations were, how she responded, etc.

In short, we learn a great deal about his character by hearing how he thought and felt about her.

The Duke is manipulative, filled with family pride, and a feeling of ownership over even the memory of his deceased wife. We even get the impression that he might have murdered her--perhaps when "all smiles stopped altogether"?

Ultimately, we see what money and power can buy--not love. For this moral commentary in dramatic monologue, Browning draws from the traditions of Shakespeare's soliloquies, John Donne's poetry, and Hopkin's sonnets to offer readers that "truth broken into prismatic hues."

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