"My Last Duchess" reminds us of an arrogant speech by a witty guy who knows he’s witty. Because it’s written in iambic pentameter, and because it has so many dramatic qualities, it reminds us of a Shakespeare play. We imagine the most pompous actor we’ve ever seen standing in the middle of a stage, planting his feet wide apart, and declaiming his lines with a lot of pretentious self-importance. There’s no doubt that the Duke is self-important. After all, what makes him angry about the last Duchess's behavior is that she thinks anyone could be important as important as he is. Toward the end of the poem, as the Duke walks his listener downstairs toward the rest of the party, he points out one last piece of art in his collection:
Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! (54-56)
We can just see the Duke pointing proudly at the statue, speaking each of his phrases with distinction, and crackling those hard consonants ("Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!") for all he’s worth.
The title of "My Last Duchess," like the first few lines of the poem, gives us quite a bit of information about the dramatic scenario in the text. The word "My" clues us in to the fact that the poem is going to be in the first-person – so, before the poem even begins, we know from the title that we’re going to be hearing the voice of a character, not just of a general poetic speaker. The title "Duchess" makes it clear that we’re dealing with European nobility, probably in a bygone age. And then there’s that adjective "last."
We’ll go ahead and ask the obvious question for you: why is she the Duke’s last Duchess? Well, that implies that there will be another Duchess in the future – and that there might have been several Duchesses before her. But wait a minute, isn’t marriage forever? Not for this Duke, who seems to dispose of Duchesses pretty quickly. So the designation "last" implies that this Duchess is only one of a sequence, preparing us for the fact that the poem might consider some of the other women who end up in that sequence.
After all, when you start describing something as your "last" one, you’re usually about to start explaining what’s going to be different about your "next" one, as in "My last car always hydroplaned, but I’m going to make sure my next one has good traction." The Duke’s last Duchess smiled and showed favors to everyone, and the Duke is going to make sure that his next wife, the daughter of the Count, doesn’t behave in the same way. How is he going to do that? Well, telling this story to her father’s servant, and thereby warning everyone in the Count’s household that he murders wives who are nice to their servants and male friends, is probably a pretty good start.
Unlike some lyric poetry, and very much like a play, "My Last Duchess" has a very definite physical and geographical setting: a private art gallery in the palace of the Duke of Ferrara in mid-sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy. The modern day country of Italy didn’t exist during the Renaissance – the many city-states in the region weren’t unified until the late nineteenth century. But Ferrara was a city-state in what is today northern Italy, sort of near Bologna. Browning even tells us this setting in the epigraph, as though he were listing the location of the scene in a play. What’s interesting is that the real historical details of life in sixteenth-century Ferrara are much less important to the poem than the connotations and stereotypes of an Italian Renaissance palace.
Browning was writing for a nineteenth-century audience (even if that audience didn’t always "get" his poetry), and that nineteenth-century audience would have immediately made certain assumptions about a place like Ferrara. You know how, if we say "Transylvania," you immediately think of Dracula, werewolves, and creepy moonlit castles? Well, for nineteenth-century British readers, saying "Renaissance Italy" would have made them think of fantastic art objects, extravagant living, lavish palaces, and sinister political ideas of the Machiavelli sort. In this way, that simple epigraph "Ferrara" suggests a whole cluster of themes – even if some of those themes might be inaccurate stereotypes.
The speaker of "My Last Duchess" is, of course, the Duke of Ferrara. But it’s important to think about him, not only as a character, but as a speaker. We need to consider his rhetoric, and syntax, and speech patterns. We know what kind of a man the Duke is, but what kind of an orator is he?
First of all, the Duke’s speech is highly formalized, using strict rhyme and meter to organize itself into couplets (AABBCC etc.). He’s a man who appreciates control, and he takes pains to control his own statements. But the syntax, or sentence structure, of the poem pulls against its rhyme scheme. The lines are paired in rhymed couplets, but these couplets are "open" – that is, the sentences don’t finish at the same time the lines do. For example:
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. (48-53)
This statement is one sentence and contains two couplets, but the sense of the lines continually spills past the rhyming words. The Duke can shape his speech into couplets, but his thoughts strain against that structure and try to break it. There’s a sense of struggle in his lines, as though he’s just barely managing to rein things in and about to lose it at any moment. Given what happened to his "last Duchess," we’re frightened of what will happen when he finally loses control.
As nineteenth-century poems go, this certainly isn’t the toughest thing you’re going to encounter. It’s pretty conversational – in fact, it’s half of a conversation. You can easily imagine that you’re the servant sitting in the Duke’s private gallery, listening to him talk about when and how the portrait was painted and what makes him such a jealous psychopath. The most difficult thing about the poem is the syntax, the order of words and phrases that the Duke uses. For example:
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. (5-13)
We count nine different phrases and clauses in that nine-line sentence, including the parenthetical aside, just so the Duke can say, "I brought up that guy Pandolf on purpose, because people always want to ask me who painted the picture." Passages like this are especially strange because the Duke can be concise and to the point when he wants to be: "This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together" (45-46). That’s the shortest way of saying "So, her behavior became even more extreme, and I decided that I would have her murdered" that we’ve ever heard.
Why so much variation in the length and complexity of the sentences? Well, for one thing, it makes the poem more interesting than if every sentence was exactly one or two lines long. But it also lets us gauge the Duke’s mood and mania. In the shorter sentences where the Duke is to the point, we can imagine him being steely and strong: "I gave commands." No compromises there. But in the longer, more tortured sentences with wacky syntax, we might wonder exactly why it’s so hard for him to say these particular things in a straightforward way, and what other details are creeping into the sentence that don’t need to be there.
In the long passage we quoted above, what the Duke is trying to say is just "People always ask me who painted the picture and how they made it so lifelike," but he ends up also mentioning that he insists on having total control over the painting. Our point is that, when this poem gets difficult to understand, that’s when you should start looking for several levels of information coming from the Duke – the things he’s trying to say, the things he lets slip on purpose, and the things he lets slip by accident.
If you enjoyed the chance to get inside the head of a jealous madman in "My Last Duchess," you’re in luck: Browning several different poems, many of them dramatic monologues, in which he assumes the voice of a psychopathic speaker. As in "My Last Duchess," Browning tends to balance his complete immersion in the voice and mind of the madman with his own subtle moral perspective on the poem. If you want to hear the voice of a man who strangles his lover with her own hair, or a masochistic self-proclaimed saint, or a monk who plots the demise of one of his fellow brothers, Browning is the author for you. We recommend you read "Porphyria’s Lover," "St. Simeon Stylites," and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" next. Oh, and don’t plan to read any of them over a meal, either. Unless you want to get sick.
Browning himself described this poem as a "dramatic lyric" – at least, Dramatic Lyrics was the title he gave to the book of poems in which "My Last Duchess" first appeared. The "dramatic" part of the poem is obvious: it has fictional characters who act out a scene.
The "lyric" part is less clear. "My Last Duchess" doesn’t read like a typical lyric poem. Its rhymed iambic pentameter lines, like its dramatic setup, remind us of Shakespeare’s plays and other Elizabethan drama. But it is about the inner thoughts of an individual speaker, instead of a dialogue between more than one person. That makes it more like the Romantic lyrics that came before it in the early part of the nineteenth century – stuff by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley that are all about the mind of the individual. So, really, Browning’s title Dramatic Lyrics says it all. "My Last Duchess" is what would happen if Shakespeare’s Macbeth married Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and they had a baby. It’s a hybrid of a play and a poem – a "dramatic lyric."
As for meter, "My Last Duchess" uses the rhythm called "iambic pentameter." Iambic means that the rhythm is based on two-syllable units in which the first syllable is . . . oh, drat, your eyes are glazing over. Stay with us here. Okay, an iamb goes "da DUM," like that. Pentameter means that there are five ("penta") of those in a line. Listen: "There’s MY last DUCHess HANGing ON the WALL" – that’s iambic pentameter. Okay, okay, you could argue that "on" shouldn’t be stressed and so forth, but that’s the basic idea.
Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, some people like to claim that iambic pentameter is the most "natural" rhythm for the English language to fall into, and that we often speak in iambic pentameter without noticing. Nobody’s ever really been able to prove this, and probably nobody ever will, but it’s a persistent "myth" about meter, so you should know it’s out there. It also means that lines written in iambic pentameter feel conversational to us. If you listen to someone read "My Last Duchess" aloud (check out our "Links" section for some online audio recordings by contemporary poets and scholars), you might not even notice that it has a fancy meter, because it sounds more like normal speech than some other poetry does.
The other thing about iambic pentameter, like we said before, is that Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists used it in their plays. Browning, a very highly educated writer, knew this, and his decision to use this meter in a poem that already feels sort of like a play is a direct allusion to the patterns of monologues (speeches made to others) and soliloquies (speeches made while alone) in drama. "My Last Duchess" is more of a monologue than a soliloquy, because there is a character listening to the Duke in the poem. He’s not speaking his thoughts aloud to himself while he’s alone, the way Hamlet does.
Of course, although the iambic rhythm makes us think of Elizabethan drama, the rhymed couplets (pairs of rhymed lines that occur together) of the poem keep tying the Duke’s speech into tidy packages, even though his thoughts and sentences are untidy. Both Shakespeare and the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth used iambic pentameter without rhyme, a form called blank verse. But Browning introduces couplets into the mix. We think you can probably guess why it might be more appropriate for the control-freak Duke of Ferrara to speak in harsh, structured, rhymed lines than in unrhymed ones.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The most obvious symbol in "My Last Duchess" is the one that the Duke spends most of his time talking about – the portrait of the Duchess painted by Frà Pandolf on the wall of his private gallery. Intriguingly, the Duke doesn’t say much about the painting itself, except that it’s lifelike and that it seems to capture the Duchess’s emotional state. We don’t get any sense of what pose the Duchess is in, what she’s wearing, or what the color scheme or brushstrokes. What we do learn about the painting is that it’s painted directly on the gallery wall, and so the Duke has to keep it covered by a curtain so that he can control who views it.
When the Duchess is happy about something – and we really mean anything, her marriage, her dinner, the weather, anything at all – she smiles and blushes, and the Duke describes her blush s a "spot of joy" (21) that appears in her cheek. The spot of joy is an involuntary signal of the Duchess's pleasure, something that she can’t control, that betrays her inner feelings to the world. The Duke thinks of it as a "spot" – a stain, a symbol of her tainted nature.
Along with blushes, the Duchess bestows pleased smiles on anyone and anything that brings a little bit of joy into her life. The Duke thinks of these smiles almost the way you might think of collector’s items – they’re worth less (maybe even worthless) because she gives out so many of them. In fact, it seems like the Duke thinks that the Duchess should only smile for him. Taking pleasure in your life, let alone in its subtle details, just doesn’t fit with his prestige-and-power philosophy.
It’s important to notice that when the Duke describes something that he thinks of as inappropriate or base for him to do, he does so by calling it "stooping." He considers himself to be on a high social pedestal, with his "nine-hundred-years-old name" and his wealth. He can’t "lower" himself, even to tell someone that he’s angry with them. Normal communication and behavior are out of the question for him, because they fall into the category of "stooping."
The final art object that the Duke points out to the Count’s servant as they leave his gallery is a bronze statue of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, taming a seahorse. The Duke emphasizes that this statue was cast for him specifically and names the sculptor, Claus of Innsbruck – which presumably means that this sculptor is well-known. As readers, we have to consider this statue as a foil to the only other art object that we see in the gallery – the portrait of the Duchess.
Nobody has sex in "My Last Duchess." Instead we get to watch the Duke of Ferrara writhing as he talks about his paranoid suspicion that his wife is having an affair. Even something as harmless as a blush or a "spot of joy" in her cheek makes him gnash his teeth. His murderous jealousy seems creepily sexual when we remember that he’s telling the story as part of the wooing process for his next wife.