My Last Duchess is a poem written by Robert Browning. It was published in Dramatic Lyrics in late November 1842. In the collection of 1849, it was made one of the Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, and in the rearrangement of the poems in 1863, it was put under Dramatic Romances. In the first publications, it was entitled Italy, and it was in the 1849 edition that the present title My Last Duchess was given.
Browning has represented the Duchess as an apathetic, stifled figure, rendered incapable by circumstances of giving expression to her talents and feelings. It has been suggested that it is based somewhat on the life that Elizabeth Barrett, later Mrs Browning, lived in Wimpole Street. Her talents and passions were stifled by the tyranny of her father.
The Duke is addressing the envoy of a Count whose daughter he is going to marry. He draws his attention to the portrait of his last Duchess, now dead. He calls it a portrait done by Friar Pandolf, and then qualifies his statement with the remarks that he did so by design, because he had noticed that visitors were intrigued by the expression on the Duchess’s face, and almost wanted to ask what caused it. Most of them restrained that curiosity because they dared not wound his feelings.
The Duke means that often people, observing the expressions of passion on the Duchess’s face, were suspicious of an affair between her and the painter. He generally, therefore, attributed the painting to one Friar Pandolf, since a clergyman’s name would remove all suspicion. He was also particular that no one but he drew the curtain to display the portrait.
He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased. She treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone. The Duke tells the envoy that the sweet smiles on the lady’s face were not for her husband alone. The bright redness visible on the lady’s cheeks was very unique. The Duke explains why the portrait of the Duchess has a blush on her cheeks. Many people think that the blush appeared on her cheeks because her husband the Duke was present there when the portrait was being made. The Duke tells the envoy that the blush on her face was not because he was present there. There was some other reason for it, perhaps some compliment by the artist occasioned that happy spot on her face. The artist might have complimented her on her dress. He might have said that her loose cloak covered her wrist too much.
The poem shows us the inside of a typical Renaissance character typified by an unscrupulous and proud Duke. Talking to the envoy of a Count whose daughter he wishes to marry, the Duke shows him the portrait of his previous wife who is dead. He remarks on her nature. Instead of understanding her amiable nature, he says that she was a silly childish woman who was readily impressed and pleased, who treated all favours alike with a smile ready for everyone.
The Duke was annoyed with the Duchess because she did not feel thankful to him for the honour he bestowed on her by marrying her. Even the gifts to her by other people and those given by him made her equally happy. She thanked both with equal warmth. The Duke failed to understand how she could equate his gifts with everybody’s gifts. The Duchess was graceful for the least kindness done to her and when she thanked the people, the Duke, though he did not get angry at that, did not however feel happy. Being absolutely unaffected by such feelings of gratitude towards others, the Duke naturally could not understand or appreciate her attitude.
The Duke did not mind that she thanked people for their good acts. But she did not give him special treatment while thanking others. He was her husband and belonged to a family of 900 years standing and reputation. He was shocked that she treated him at par with other people. Thus she disgraced his royal name and lineage. It was a mean act by the Duchess. He could have pointed it to the Duchess who might have corrected if she thought it fit. But then he did not like to do that. It would have been his insult had he done so.
The Duke tells the Count’s envoy that the reputation which the Count has for splendid generosity is enough to guarantee that all his claims regarding dowry will be granted. The Duke further clarifies his remarks lest he should be misunderstood. He tells the envoy that even though his first and foremost attraction is the charming daughter of the Count, still he has mentioned the dowry because he has great faith in the generosity of the Count. While going down he draws the envoy’s attention to a bronze statue of Neptune — the sea god. He tells the envoy that this pose of Neptune taming a sea-horse is a rare one. He also informs the envoy that the bronze statue was made for the Duke by Claus of Innsbruck. The Duke wants the dowry to be worthy of his status, or at least what he considers it to be. It is significant that Browning makes him speak first of the dowry and then of the lady. That shows which is more important to him. Obviously, love has no place in such contracts entered into by him. We expect that in a short while he would treat his second wife in the way he treated the first. The same fate awaits her.