My Last Duchess Essay, Research Paper
Explication of:”My Last Duchess” by: Robert BrowningThis piece of poetry is about an Italian duke who ordered the murder of his wife and is currently showing her portrait to a servant or envoy of his future father-in-law. The duke shows this painting only to select strangers in order to flaunt his prize, and he enjoys telling them the story of why he ordered her death. This portrait is the embodiment of what he believes his wife should be – a trophy whose beauty can be admired only under his complete control.Since he is the Duke with the “nine-hundred-years-old name” (line 33), he believes that he must be shown great respect and be the center of attention in his home. Therefore, he feels threatened by all the attention the duchess apparently received everywhere she went; such as from the artist Pandolf or the “officious fool” who brought her cherries (line 27). Apparently, her presence drew others’ attention away from the duke so that he did not have control of the situation. In this way the duchess seemed to possess a type of power which was unacceptable. A wife of the duke exists for his enjoyment alone. Other men should not admire her, and she especially must not enjoy their attentions or take pleasure from anything other than the duke himself. He feels betrayed that “she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (lines 23, 24). He also cannot tolerate that “she thanked men… Somehow…as if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/ With anybody’s gift” (lines 31-34) or that she smiled whenever he “passed her; but who passed without/ Much the same smile?” (lines 44, 45). The duke cannot accept that she seemed to treat everyone and every gift equally: “all and each/ Would draw from her alike the approving speech / Or blush, at least” (lines 29-31).As one of his possessions, the duke’s wife can never be treated as his equal. He refuses to lower himself to “such an one” (line 37) since she is merely a woman. Therefore, he cannot be expected to have a real conversation with her because that would be admitting that she was on equal status with him: “E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose / Never to stoop” (lines 42, 43). He also cannot take the chance that she would talk back to him and “make excuse” because then she would be setting her wits to those of a man (line 41). Since it is unthinkable that he could ever “stoop” to tell her that her behavior was unacceptable, the duke’s only recourse – his only way to tame her and have complete control – was to have her killed: “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands as if alive” (lines 45-47). Now, the lovely painting is behind a curtain for his pleasure only, for his eyes only, just as a wife should be. Now he has complete control over when and if he allows anyone else to see her.
By controlling who is able to view the painting, the duke fulfills his need to exhibit his power. He must show others how powerful he is, but he is rather cowardly in this respect because he does not flaunt this to those who may be more powerful than he. He does not tell his story of the last duchess to the Count himself but to his servant who would probably never tell the Count but who would perhaps tell the Count’s daughter as a warning so that she would live in fear and awe of the duke. He certainly wants his next wife to be another lovely showpiece along with her large dowry: “no just pretense / Of mine for dowry will be disallowed” (lines 50, 51). I think this was a very good poem, even though it seemed to me that if a guy is spending time talking about a portrait of his former wife, it would usually conclude that he loved her. After all, why would he be showing off her picture? I started the poem and expected it to be about a man’s love for his wife; thus, as I read for the first time I attempted to fit the words into my own expectations. It was better the second time around when I understood it and even though she did disgrace his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (33), I still think death was a little bit extreme. Work CitedBrowning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Literature for composition. 4th ed. Ed. Sylvan Barnet et al. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. 358-359.