“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning is written as a dramatic monologue that gives the appearance as if it is being said on stage in front of an audience. It is inferred through the poem that this style was possibly chosen in order to emphasize the main point of view, the Duke. This method of writing not only emphasizes the will of the main character, but most importantly, silences the voice of the antagonist, the Duchess. Through the Duke’s speech he reveals his own nature and the situation that he finds himself in. “My Last Duchess” is a poem that is immensely dominated by the male character, which serves to give us his opinions on his last wife. Due to his point of view we are made to gather negative feelings toward her, while also digging deep into the poem and discovering her true identity. Without a doubt, I believe that this poem serves the purpose of giving a voice to the Duke’s last Duchess, because hers was so tragically silenced by male dominance. Robert Browning’s use of symbolism, irony, and language, reveals the theme of power in the poem and, therefore, gives a voice to the voiceless.
The role of symbolism is exceedingly relevant in the construction of “My Last Duchess”, because it aids in shedding light on the cruel and selfish demeanor of the Duke. The poem consists of two big symbols: Fra Pandolf’s painting of the Duchess and blushing. Although the painting is a more obvious symbol, both aid in revealing the theme equally. The painting by Fra Pandolf is the primary focus throughout the entire poem and gives us insight into what the Duchess, according to the Duke, did wrong. To begin, the Duke describes the painting of the Duchess “looking as if she were alive” (Browning 2). The Duke’s interpretation of the life-likeness of the painting symbolizes his belief that by controlling the painting, he can control the Duchess. The poem then goes on to describe how the Duke keeps the painting behind a curtain and only draws it back to show his audience. This description of the way the painting is treated further symbolizes the Duke’s possession; the Duchess is only revealed at the time the Duke pleases and to those that he allows. By having control over who sees the painting and when it is seen, the Duke feels as though he is regaining the control he once lost over his Duchess. The Duke’s power of the Duchess is even prevalent in his description of the artist who painted the Duchess: “I call that piece a wonder, now Fra Pandolf’s hands/ Worked busily a day, and there she stands” (2-4). The Duke does not refer to the artist himself, but instead, to his hands. By doing so, the artist is stripped of his identity and brought down to being a tool, revealing the Duke’s extreme psychotic control over the Duchess. For goodness sake, the Duke couldn’t even give credit to the man who painted his wife, because that would imply that he had to look at her.
Another symbol in “My Last Duchess” is blushing. Although it is such a simple act, it yields much meaning within the poem. It is revealed that the Duke believes the biggest flaw of the Duchess was her sociable presence, which to him, was flirtatious. In fact, her flirtatious tendencies are described by the Duke as such, “‘twas not/ Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek…” (13-15). Through context it is inferred that what the narrator refers to as spots of joy, are actually used to describe the Duchess’ blushing, which she happens to do quite frequently. The Duchess’ blushing is symbolically called spots of joy, because it is an uncontrollable act that happens whenever she is happy of joyful- it is an involuntary signal of the Duchess’ pleasure. This act of blushing is symbolic, because the Duke views it as another thing he can not control and therefore, believes it is a tarnish on the Duchess’ pure nature. The Duchess’ tendency to blush easily based on everything she saw, threatened the Duke’s power because he was unable to control both her physical and mental signs of emotion. Both the painting of the Duchess and her blushing, are symbolic of the Duke’s exhibited power of his late wife.
“My Last Duchess” is filled with ample examples of irony, because it aids in the dramatic aspect of the plot. Much of the irony becomes evident in the Duke’s analysis of his late Duchess. For example, the Duke describes his wife as being “too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (23-24). This remark goes along with the symbol of the Duchess’ blushing, but serves a greater purpose in regards to irony. It is extremely ironic that the Duchess is criticized for genuinely being a friendly, outgoing, and kind person who is in love with nature. Today, one would address these attributes positively, but the Duke views them as flirtatious and whore-like, as if she wants to be with everyone. The Duke continues to criticize his late wife by saying that she “thanked men, —good! But thanked/ Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked/ My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/ With anybody’s gift” (31-34). The Duke recognizes the Duchess’ politeness, but manages to selfishly turn it in his favor by associating her politeness with an act that was given too often, and made her politeness to him more so worthless. The final example of irony is the fact that the Duke blatantly opposes the possibility that, “Who’d stoop to blame this sort of trifling?” (34-35). The Duke believes that he would have had to lower himself to get the Duchess to behave, but he would never do so. However, quite ironically, the entire poem is him lowering himself by basically trashing the Duchess and making her seem like something she is not. It is ironic that everything the Duchess does that to us, is seen as a positive thing, the Duke turns to negative, making us believe that he was the victim.
Language is the final key element that aids in revealing the theme of power in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” The main part of language that this poem emphasizes is the use of different words to express specific meanings. Throughout the poem one is able to gather a sense of the Duke’s power through his use of possessive words such as “my.” Whenever he refers to the painting, he is sure to say, “my last Duchess.” Along with the use of “my”, “I” is used quite throughout in order to reveal the Duke’s self-absorbed nature, which ultimately is the foundation of his power. The use of possessive pronouns shows the Duchess less as a woman or wife, but more as an object or prized possession. Another example of language in “My Last Duchess” is the Duke’s consistent use of the word “sir.” Taking the time period into consideration and the poem as a whole, it is inferred that the Duke uses this word frequently in order to showcase his superiority and social standing. This then leads into the poem’s allusion to the Roman God, Neptune, who in Greek Mythology, is the infamous Poseidon, God of the sea. The passage from the poem reads, “Notice Neptune, though/ Taming a sea-horse, though a rarity/ Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (55-57). This remark makes an allusion to Neptune’s ability to tame a sea horse, to the Duke’s unnecessary need to tame the Duchess. As Neptune is far too powerful to waste his time on taming a simple sea horse, the Duke does not need to waste his time taming his late wife, yet he does exactly that. Finally, the last moment of possession seen in the poem is the author’s use of an exclamation mark to note his ultimate power.
The Duke in “My Last Duchess” sheds light on the effect that male selfishness and power has on women, but also brings to light the true reality. Although the entire poem is focused on the Duke’s interpretation of his late Duchess, it is revealed through deeper context that the true meaning of the poem is to give the Duchess the voice she deserves; to clear her name of all the Duke’s accusations. It is revealed through symbolism, irony, and language that the Duke has a serious issue with dominance and power, and therefore, is seen as quite psychotic. A prime example of the Duke’s psychotic behaviors is inferred in lines 45-46, in which the Duke remarks, “This grew. I gave commands/ Then all smiles stopped altogether.” ((45-46). The more the Duke is seen as insane, the less accurate his thoughts on the Duchess become, thus giving her a voice.