The speaker can be seen as both a villain and lover of great art, but which is his true identity? In “My Last Duchess”, the duke’s deplorable wickedness makes the split between moral judgment and our actual feeling for him especially apparent. The effect created by the tension between sympathy and judgment is a striking characteristic of dramatic monologues. Throughout the poem, the Duke’s poise and wonderful taste for art makes the reader take on a sympathetic attitude toward the Duke.
When the Duke shows his power and desire to control, however, we begin to question the Duke’s character and judge his motives.
The way the reader perceives the Duke changes the reader’s perspective on the poem and situation of the Duke, yet Browning’s reasoning for doing this is inconclusive. Upon first reading, the poem struck us as if we should have some sort of sympathy for the Duke due to his truly genuine admiration towards his pieces of art, “I call/That piece a wonder, now: Fr Pandolf’s hands/Worked busily a day, and there she stands” (lines 2-4).
We see how insanely egotistical the Duke is in lines 32-35, “as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift.
Who’d stoop to blame/This sort of trifling? ”, yet we cannot help but admire him. His flawless manner, impeccable taste, and admiration for the arts come together to astound both the envoy and us. The Duke describes the portrait in great detail and emphasizes the ease and intensity in which it was painted, “depth and passion of its earnest glance” (line 8). Only someone who sincerely admires such great work would be able to tell the nuances in stroke of the painting itself. As the poem progresses, we increasingly learn more about the Duke.
We begin to understand the thoughts, feelings, and potential motives of the Duke which give the reader a sense of sympathy for him, “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt/,Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without/Much the same smile? ” (lines 43-45). The more one gets to know a person, the more one relates to him or her; this is exactly what happens in the poem. The Duke increasingly tells the reader about his life and situation, and the reader feels as if he or she understands him more and more. The Duke explains how he felt as if he was not special to the Duchess.
He felt as if she saw him as any other man, “She thanked men,—good! but thanked/Somehow—I know not how” (line 31-32). As we come to the ending of the poem for the first time, the reader feels nothing but sympathy and understanding for the Duke, but in the very last line, “Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! ” we are struck by the spite hidden in his last statement. While on his way back to the party with the envoy, the Duke points out the statue of Neptune. This is just one of the many references the Duke makes that portrays his love for always being in control.
After reminding the envoy of how his new bride shall be his own, “Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object. ” (line 52-53), the envoy tries to get away from the situation in which the Duke has put him. But, rather than letting the envoy leave, for this would disrupt the Duke’s power of control, the Duke insists that they return to the party together, “Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet/The company below, then. ” (Lines 47-48). While on the way back to the party, the Duke points out the bronze statue of Neptune as his leaving remark.
It is no coincidence that the last piece of art the Duke refers to is that of Neptune, God of the Seas, controlling a seahorse. As if the Duke had not already pushed his need to control onto the envoy, the Duke completes the poem by leaving the envoy with a last “hint” of what control the Duke thrives off of. The overwhelming sense of control that the Duke presents especially when he states, “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together” (lines 45-46), causes the reader to suspend moral judgment upon the Duke. Having the Duchess as a painting instead of a person, appeases the Duke’s desire to control.
The Duke explains how he felt as if he did not have proper control over her when she was alive, but now that he has her in a painting, controlling her is easily done, “This grew; I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive. ” (lines 45-47). She is trapped in the frame of the painting, underneath the curtain that only he can draw. When the Duke begins to describe how unpleased he was that the Duchess was, “too soon made glad” (line 22), we begin to question what really happened to the Duchess.
The Duke even indicates the relative subordination of the Duchess to himself throughout the poem, confirming his need to control, “and if she let/Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set/Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,/—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose/Never to stoop. ” (lines 39-43). We judge the Duke because we prefer to participate in his power-ridden manifestation that he exhibits to the envoy. The Duke even allows himself to assure that the new bride herself, not the dowry, is of course his object, “Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed/At starting, is my object. (line 52-53).
Here, one side of the Duke’s nature is taken to its furthest limit. The need to judge the Duke is taken into full consideration when we see how controlling yet put together the Duke seems to be. The reader is constantly torn between feeling sympathy for a true lover of the arts or judging a villain who killed his own wife. One can see how Browning leaves the poem with many ambiguous points, causing the reader to interpret the meaning of a situation. Browning writes the poem in this way in order to make us relate to the Duke.
Throughout the poem, the reader can see how the Duke values aspects of his life that he can control. The Duke continuously wants control over his women, art, and nearly everything else in his life. By leaving uncertainty in the poem, Browning leaves us wanting to fill in the blanks, essentially controlling parts of the poem and even the outcome. The major scene in which Browning does this in the very beginning of the poem, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive. ” (lines 1-2).
By simply including the word “looking”, Browning leaves the reader in question. Is she “looking” as if she were alive because she is no longer alive? And if so, what happened to her? Did someone kill her? Who killed her? Did the Duke kill her? Did he kill her because she never saw him as anything better than they men she met every day? Or, is she “looking” as if she were alive because the painting is so amazing? Is he just admiring the realism that Fr Pandolf portrayed in the portrait of the Duchess?
These are just some questions that reader may imagine with the vagueness that Browning implements throughout the poem, leaving the reader to interpret the Duke’s situation however they like. Browning’s monologues plunge the reader into a world where every statement must be taken with a grain of salt. None of the Duke’s statements are considered trustworthy; therefore, we are continuously on guard, ready to protect ourselves and more importantly our moral sense. The Duke could even be considered somewhat of a liar.
However, we do realize that the Duke often attempts to stretch the truth and use his words to alter his listeners’ perception of and attitude towards certain things, most notably the speaker himself. This style of writing allows for the speaker to have a certain amount of control over the language of the story as well as the world that the speaker presents in the story. Although this is true, there is always some disruptive force that can potentially torment the speaker’s purposes, ultimately transforming the life of the story.