The text I have selected to discuss is ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning, which was written in 1842. “My Last Duchess” is a dramatic monologue of one side of a conversation between a Duke and a Count’s messenger who are negotiating a marriage to the Count’s daughter. The Duke’s speech about his ‘Last Duchess’ reveals perhaps more than he first intended to. The Duke shows the Count’s envoy a painting of his ‘Last Duchess,’ he talks fondly of the painting and goes on to describe the Duchess. He describes her as beautiful, easily pleased and flirtatious. The setting of this poem is the 16th century, where women were considered mere possessions, objects, child bearers, –not people– and taught to obey orders without contradiction, which could be punishable by death. In this essay I intend to discuss what I consider to be the poem’s purpose and meaning.
In “My Last Duchess” the Duke appears to be a very proud, jealous, and well educated man. He complains that the Duchess treats his gift to her of a 900 year old name as if it were of the same value as the bough of cherries and the white mule given to her by some ‘officious’ fool. He is possessive and controlling, and it is his jealous nature that causes the duchess’s death. It would not be fair to say that the Duke ordered for the Duchess to be disposed of, simply because she flirted with other men, he gave her warning and she disobeyed him. In the 16th century this would have been considered a great insult. Women were treated as slaves, and if they disobeyed their husbands or male members of their family then they would be known as an embarrassment to their family and their husbands, who would have nothing more to do with them.
The duchess insults the duke, who is already jealous of her ‘relationships’ with other men, who has given her warning, and who she has insulted and become an embarrassment to, the Duke feels he has no other choice but to dispose of her. The Duke chooses his words very carefully when discussing the death of the duchess with the envoy, dropping only small hints, but giving enough evidence to lead us to believe that did indeed ‘get rid of her’. Her death would have been quiet and discreet; which I believe would have been the Duke’s style, no fuss and no inconvenience for the duke. Due to the title of the poem, and how the duke describes the duchess as merely his ‘last’, making it appear as though there has been many duchesses before her.
She was his trophy wife, and he prided himself on having a beautiful, young wife, but was unable to control his jealousy over those who also appreciated her beauty. I think the duke has married many times to secure land, money and more importantly, power. The Duke craved power, money and wanted the perfect wife, who was beautiful and followed his every command. The Duke is jealous of the way the Duchess treats other people, not because he loves her and wants all her love for himself, but because he wants her to acknowledge his power over her.
The ‘Last Duchess’ was a young girl when she married the Duke, she could have been around thirteen or fourteen years old. At this age, although she is old enough to know right from wrong, and will not be as immature as a ten or twelve year old, it is doubtful that she is old enough to cope with so much responsibility, to be married to the duke for the rest of her life and to avoid becoming an embarrassment to her family. To the reader, she may appear as if she is merely smiling at other men, thanking them for their gifts and blushing at compliments. Though, to the duke she is smiling at other men, the same way she smiles at him, this causes him to worry that she is being unfaithful. She also rates his gift of a nine-hundred-year old name the same as any other old gift, not truly understanding the value and importance that he believes his name to be.
She blushes and smiles, when paid compliments, calling that “spot of joy” into her cheek, of which the Duke is so possessive over. He also remarks that “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.” By saying this, he is implying that she was too easily impressed, she liked anyone she seen, and she looked at everyone. The duchess, is young and immature, she has been warned by the duke she must stop flirting with other men, or face the consequences. She sees the Duke’s weak spot, his jealousy over her, and proceeds to taunt him, perhaps smiling at men when she knew she was being watched, this ultimately, is the cause of her death- her inability to stop smiling.
He says, “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. There she stands as if alive.” The duchess still smiles at the duke, but also at anyone else who passes, this annoys the Duke, who, when she disobeys him has decided that he cannot take it any more. It suddenly dawns on the reader that the Duke has not stopped her from merely smiling, he has stopped her from breathing, it is a chilling revelation. He has ordered her to be disposed of, and then he suddenly changes the topic back to the painting, almost as if he can’t be bothered to discuss the matter any further. I think the Duke and Duchess may have had feelings for each other, and rather than appreciate the feelings of the Duke, she decides to hurt them, to tease him, to make him jealous, showing her immaturity and her naivety of ignoring his warnings.
In the opening scene of the poem, the Duke describes the painting, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall. Looking as if she were alive. I call that piece a wonder, now.” This could easily be mistaken for fondness of the duchess, but he is really complimenting the painting. He casually tells us that it is his ‘Last Duchess’ on the wall, not bothering to name her, as if she were his possession and refers to her as ‘my.’ He remarks on the painter’s skill and ability to paint her, making her look as if she were a real person in front of them. When the duchess was being painted by ‘Fra pandolf’, the painter pays her a compliment, which calls a “spot of joy” to her cheek, which the Duke feels should be reserved only for himself. He is careful not to reveal his feelings towards the Duchess, although he does unknowingly through his jealousy.
He did care for the Duchess, maybe he did not love her, or maybe he thought of her as a possession and was selfish, refusing to share her smile with anyone else, but he did have feelings for her. These feelings grew, and so did his jealousy, the result of which sadly ended in the Duchesses death. The duke was, at first, lenient with the Duchess, allowing her to flirt with other men, and when it becomes too much for him, warning her, and when she does not take heed of his warning and he worries that his reputation will be tarnished he has to act, and act he does, with the Duchess’s death. Although, at the end of the poem, he asks the envoy to rise, to meet the company that is waiting downstairs, they discuss the dowry which the Duke will receive when he marries the Count’s daughter. The count then moves on to discuss the statue of a seahorse, which he describes the same as he did the painting, making it appear that he did indeed have no special feelings towards the Duchess, and he values the seahorse, the same as the duchess.
I believe that this poem is set in the 16th century, in the renaissance period, where the Italian aristocracy ruled Italy, the poor had no say and the gentry at the time treated women like slaves. In this period of time, it was unacceptable for a woman to show her legs, too much of her arms, to be caught alone with other men, whether they were innocent or not, or to be unloyal to those who had taken care of her. The poem is set in the duke’s ‘palatial’ house, there could be indeed be a party downstairs, possibly to congratulate the Duke and the Count’s daughters future wedding.
There will be many important people invited, such as the Count, his daughter and his court as well as many other important people of the time. The envoy, after discussing the dowry with the Duke, will return to the party, to talk to the Count and it will be decided the size of the dowry, and whether the wedding will continue. This is an important party for the Duke and he will want to show that he has riches, wealth, power and influence to the Count, so that he will be keen for his daughter to marry the Duke. The Duke’s house is big, and filled with art, he seems the type of person to have servants who will be taking care of the party downstairs.
The main themes of this poem are riches, wealth, power, jealousy and the male dominated society of the 16th century. Though there is no theme of love in this poem, this is not evidence that the Duke did not love the Duchess, he may have loved the duchess so much, that he could not bear to see the Duchess flirt with other people. The riches, wealth and power are conveyed through the aristocratic setting of this poem, the people involved, such as the duke, the count, the duchess, the people who they consider to be below them, such as the envoy, the ‘officious fool’ who gave the duchess a bough of cherries and a white mule that could not possibly compare with the duke’s 900 year old name. There is a running theme of jealousy throughout this poem, and also a sense of paranoia, the Duke sees the Duchess smile at other men and the idea forms in his mind that she is going to leave him for anyone she smiles at.
Therefore, in conclusion I have tried to show what I consider to be the poem’s purpose and meaning. I have tried to show how the duke was possessive
over the duchess, how she tormented and teased him, how he finally could not take any more, and she was disposed of. How he did have feelings for her, but valued her as much as a statue of a seahorse made out of bronze. How he discusses his ‘Last Duchess’ and his future duchess as if they were items, used for financial gain, The duke’s jealousy is a running theme throughout the poem, and he is unable to control it, or the duchess and he did not want to lose face to the rest of the aristocracy. The renaissance was a time when the killing of women for the simplest of things was considered politically correct. I have also tried to show that I consider this poem’s purpose and meaning to be about the Duke’s jealousy and low self esteem to make him imagine that the Duchess is going to leave for him for anyone and everyone.
Courtney from Study Moose
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