Sometimes the old stories are the best ones: Boy meets girl, boy dumps girl for another girl, first girl plots to murder second girl in an agonizingly slow and painful, way. Uh-oh. Okay, so maybe this isn't just any old story. In spite of its innocent sounding title, Robert Browning's "The Laboratory" tells the tale of one lady's nasty plot to kill her romantic rival.
Robert Browning based his poem on a real-life figure, a French woman named Madame de Brinvilliers, a notorious serial killer who had her head chopped off in the seventeenth century. Her story is super-creepy, but also kind of fascinating—we can definitely see why Browning based a poem on her.
This poem came out in 1844, on the early side of Browning's long (and super-successful) career. Browning was one of the most famous and well-loved poets of England's Victorian era. This was a time when England and its huge empire was on top of the world. It's kind of interesting to think about why such a stable, happy time gave birth to such twisted, gory poems. If you want more info on the Browning, you might want to cruise on over to his other poems on our site like "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess." If you're curious about the world of the Victorian era in general, we recommend a trip over to The Victorian Web, which is jam-packed with useful info.
We should also point out that this whole thing reads like a long speech by one person, and this style (called dramatic monologue) was Browning's specialty. He was especially good at tales of death and lost love, and this one is no exception.
You can't live very long on this planet without feeling jealous. Even worse, it's pretty tough to be in love without getting your heart broken at least once. So Robert Browning is sending out a poem to all those lonely Shmoopers out there who've ever been dumped, and maybe wanted to get back at someone!
Well, maybe we should back up there. Shmoop definitely does not endorse revenge, especially when it involves poison (do not try this at home!). So maybe you want to think of this like a horror movie. It's a chance to see people in situations that you know all about, feeling the way you have, but acting in crazy, extreme, and (let's be honest) kind of fascinating ways. This poem is about love and loss, for sure, but it's also about the spine-tingling fun of getting lost in a world of guts and gore. Think of the lady in this poem like Hannibal Lecter for the nineteenth century. You're not supposed to like her, but you should buckle in for a heck of a ride.
A Solid Foundation
This site is a good way to get to know Browning. There's a bio, articles by super-smart folks, recordings, poems, etc.
Here's a super-cool site, packed with information about Browning and the world he lived in. It's easy to get lost in this one—be careful.
This little video shows you the places where Robert and his famous wife Elizabeth spent their time. The production values might not be super-high, but gives you a nice feel for his life.
R.I.P. Queen Victoria
Robert Browning will be forever linked to the reign of Queen Victoria. Here's a fascinating historical film of the end of her amazingly long time on the throne.
A Reading of "The Laboratory" by the Coolest Guy Ever
Check this one out, if only to hear this guy's amazing voice!
Robert Browning Forgets His Own Poem
Here's a great historical recording of Browning. A little tough to hear, but listen to the end, where he forgets his lines!
Robert Browning, Facial Hair Enthusiast
Here's a painting of Browning from the National Portrait Gallery in England. Check out the awesome chin beard!
The Illustrated Laboratory
This watercolor based on the poem is by the famous Victorian painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It might not be his masterpiece, but it's cool to see how he imagined the scene.
Here's a collection of Browning and wife's personal remembrances.
All Together Now
All of Browning's work, collected in handy book form!