Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and Shakespeare’s Othello
Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and Shakespeare’s Othello
When we compare “Othello” written by William Shakespeare and “My Last Duchess” penned by Robert Browning, we found a lot of similarities and differences between these two works in realms of characters, events and incidences, and the causes of murder. Jealousy and possession are, however, the ruling passions in these two tragic works of art. There is remorse in “Othello” but there is none in “My Last Duchess”. Let us discuss these two masterpieces of domestic tragedy in detail in order to dig out the elements that made them happen.
Let us start the discussion with the characters, first the male and then the female characters. Othello is a brave soldier. Unlike the Duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess” Othello is a man of principles who is sincere, honest and loyal to his country. The first impression we get of Othello is of dignity and self-control, as he arrives accompanied by Iago and other attendants. His exquisite handling of the situation, as an incensed Brabantio collects a number of men to kill him because he has seduced his daughter.
There is no malignity, there is no anger, and a disgraceful scuffle is prevented by a man whose stature is such that his mere presence can change hearts. The same dignity is seen when he faces the Venetian senate as an accused defending himself. We find him as a man who is straight-forward and frank, and who utters the truth without any fear. Even the Duke tells Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack/ Your son-in-law is far more fair than black. ” Now, these are the qualities that are absent in the character of the Duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess”.
Desdemona speaks abundantly about his courage as well as his dignity and self-control. She paid the finest tribute to Othello’s nobility of character in these words, “I saw Othello’s visage in hi mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. ”(act1, scene 3, 252-254) The Duchess of “My Last Duchess” does not seem to think so sweetly and harbor such kind thoughts for her husband, the greedy and tyrant duke of Ferrara. Othello is simple and straightforward, and demands the same kind of unrighteousness in others.
When others do not react with righteousness that he expects, he is massively confused and the consequence is a display of ruinous passions. It is this trait in his character that makes him utter his most terrible line, “villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore”. In addition to that his unsuspicious nature makes him trust to the point of being foolish, and “as tenderly be led by the nose as assess are”. His sensitivity and his humility are flaws rather than his strengths, and his inexperience about an unknown society adds to the misery.
Unlike the duke of “My Last Duchess” Othello’s love for Desdemona was not for the sake of riches, as her father was a rich senator. It was not for the sake of dowry. If it had been the case they would not have a run-away marriage. This marriage was based on pure and sincere love from both sides. He told the duke that, “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them. (1, 3,167-168) it must be understood that the world to which the love of Othello and Desdemona belongs is a world of unquestioning faith.
It is into this world that Iago initiates his consummate villainy against a trusting and simplistic man, who is not used to the complexities and subtleties of modern age. The reflection in language of the transformation in Othello also needs to be scrutinized closely. In the play, Othello often begins to talk like Iago and the comparison between Iago’s speech at III, iii, 165-70 and Othello’s at III, iii, 339-44, is not merely a chance happening. From now onwards, Othello sees through Iago’s eyes, though there is still a contrast between Iago’s generalizing approach and Othello’s agonized personal application: “What sense had I?…..
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips”. This is the kind of nobility which saves Othello from irreparable degradation, since he cannot argue his experience to bring it to the level Iago’s subtle maneuvers. The duke of Ferrara on the other hand is a very articulate, clever talker. He knows well how to manipulate the situation and describe them in his own benefits. The biggest flaw in the character of Othello that brings about the tragedy to happen, which also has something similar with the character of Duke of Ferrara, is that he is an extremely jealous person.
Jealousy is the main driving force, which first becomes totally uncontrollable, and ultimately leads to the final catastrophe. Yet it cannot be accepted that he is dominated by jealousy and even distorted by barbaric crazed fury and physical jealousy, which erupts out of lust amd not out of love. But this jealousy erupts due to an emotion which is unfamiliar to him, and which he does not know how to handle. The emotion which he knows and understands, he can foresee and guard against them through his enormous resources of self-control.
But an emotion which is totally alien to him makes him lose self-control completely. Once this is lost, there is no possibility of recovery. If Iago succeeds in manipulating Othello with such consummate ease, it is not because of his innate jealousy. Iago’ success is due to strength of character in Othello- his profound credulity. He thinks men to be honest merely because they outwardly appear to be so. At the end of the play, he describes himself as a person not easily jealous, but one who has been wrought and perplexed to the extreme.
This is as near the truth as any one can reach about Othello. Had he changed the term “not easily” to “not naturally”, he would have stated the entire truth. A person less successful than Iago in any case, would not have succeeded in rousing jealousy in Othello. It is due to this that we must not reduce the hero’s credulity as being stupid, which Stoll and some other critics, thought it was. Desdemona seems to be a woman who lacks maturity and is sort of a child-wife. She looks a lot like the duchess of the poem “My Last Duchess. ” She is a lady of exceptional beauty.
Her love for Othello is profound and strong she makes a perfect wife because she is totally obedient and self-effacing. This self-effacement makes her divine both while she is living and in her death. For, at the moment of her death , she takes the blame of her death entirely on herself in order to free her husband from any blame, as she cries out: “Nobody, I myself: farewell! Commend me to my kind lord; O, farewell! ” Like the duchess she is always ready to enjoy life and be pleased. A. C. Bradley thinks that Desdemona is the sweetest and the most pathetic of Shakespearean heroines. 203) Just like the duchess she is killed because of her innocence lack of worldly tact and cleverness. She innocently pleaded for Cassio, which proved fatal in the end. The duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess” kills the duchess because of jealousy, but his character and thinking is greatly different from the noble Othello. How? Let us discuss in detail. In My Last Duchess, we get a superb psychoanalysis of an arrogant Renaissance Duke of Italy. The Duke is proud and vain of his old family name and art collections. Arrogantly, he points out that his collection is full of rare pieces.
He feels that he has bestowed a supreme favor on the Duchess by marrying her and giving her his nine-hundred-years old name. While Othello on the other hand felt no such false pride, he believe that, “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them. (1, 3,167-168) Secondly, he has an inflated sense of personal dignity. He could not understand the Duchess’s easy ways. He was too haughty to correct her. He merely expected her to follow his own exaggerated idea of dignity and when she refused to follow his ways, he said that, “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. (Line 45)
The duke is also jealous of his possessions. He considered the Duchess to be his personal property like any of his art pieces. He cannot tolerate her smiling and thanking everyone whole-heartedly. Unlike Othello he is temperamentally a tyrant. He is unable to understand his wife’s nature or tolerate her easy ways. He wants complete dominion over her and feels that she should smile at none except him. No one dares to ask him even a simple question. “Love” has no meaning for him. He has critical taste in art. He can appreciate life like portrayal in art but cannot appreciate a living person.
Artistic beauty matters, but “rarity” matters as much. He does not mind “stooping” to hope for a large dowry from the Count. He is clever enough to use flattery for his selfish motives as in his giving assurances to the envoy that it is the Count’s daughter’s beauty, which is of primary concern, and not the dowry. The casual reference to the bronze statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse once again seems to imply the Duke’s own dominating temperament which will tolerate no opposition. The Duke’s cold and stiff dignity cannot understand the pure innocence of the Duchess who enjoys the little joys of life.
In a nutshell, the Duke of Ferrara is unscrupulous, selfish, tyrannical, and arrogant. He is a self-centered individual as well as a typical nobleman of the Italian Renaissance. The noble Othello was instigated and manipulated by the unscrupulous and clever Iago whereas; no such person instigated the Duke of Ferrara. Even then he killed her it means that he is a great sinner than Othello for killed the duke according to her own whims while Othello acted confusedly because of the machinations of someone else. Through the depiction of a character, Browning epitomizes a whole age.
The Duke of Ferrara’s words reveal not only himself but also the very essence of Renaissance Italy. The age, marked by intrigue, avarice, shrewd mercenary instincts, hypocrisy and an exquisite taste for fine arts come out distinctly through the characterization of the Duke. In the brief space of fifty-six lines, that spirit of an age is captured, through the words of a single speaker. In addition to that, in this poem we found the Duke of Ferrara speaking to the envoy of a count whose daughter he intends to marry. He shows the envoy his picture gallery and stops before the picture of his last duchess.
It is not by mere accident that he talks of his dead wife; he does so “by design”. He wants to impress on the envoy and his master the count, as to the sort of behavior he expected from the woman he was going to marry. He threatens his listener that he would tolerate no rivals for his next wife’s smiles. Butler states that the Duke “expects his wife to smile a special smile for him and no one else” (30). In this poem we are given not only a vivid picture of the Duke’s temperament, but through his words, we realize the true nature of his Last Duchess as well.
The irony is that, while the Duke’s words give his personal opinion of the Duchess, we formulate quite a different opinion from those very words. The Duke’s own narrow mindedness, stupendous arrogance, supercilious dignity, cruelty, greed and unscrupulousness are reveled in his attempt to present his dead wife in a derogatory tone. The arrogance and pride of a nine-hundred-year-old name has bred inhumanity and callousness in the Duke. Too jealous of his name, he interprets every act of his wife’s innocence, simplicity and amiability as a calculated insult to himself.
Holding her as part of his property, he cannot tolerate her smiling at or thanking anyone except himself; that implied an infringement of the rights of property which this dealer in human souls could not stand. In addition to that arrogance, there is an exasperated brain that can nit accept that he is unable to subjugate his wife that force him to kill her. Butler has rightly pointed out this hurt pride and says that there is “a maddened sense that he cannot conquer his wife” that appears “to lie behind these details” (30).
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 13 January 2017
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