My last duchess review

Robert Browning’s “My last Duchess” is centered around the dramatic dialogue of the Duke of Ferrara as he shows a portrait of his late wife to an envoy. During what otherwise would have been an ordinary tour, the Duke provides a history of how he came to posess a portrait of such a lovely woman. Why the Duke chooses to divulge so much detail into the various troubles of his marriage is still debateable amongst critics, however Browning’s choice to tell a story so horrific seems to be fitting for the era that he is writing in. Browning, a Victorian era poet, would have been living in a time that women’s rights were of great debate. The issue of how a woman should and should not behave was being reconsidered throughout Europe, A fact evidenced by the many literary pieces that share this common theme as well as political decisions that allow women a greater sense of independence such as The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, and the Married Women’s Property Acts; decisions passed by Parliament only shortly after  the publication of this poem. After conducting a critical review of “My Last Duchess” it can be argued that Browning constructed the work in order to illuminate the control that men are exercising over women during that time.

 Deviseing a complete critical review of Robert  Browning’s work the acquisition of peer reviewed journals and books related was necessary. A total of five critics ranging from the mid twentieth century to present day have been cited in order to further support the claim stated above.

1950’s concerns regarding women’s rights

During the 1950’s literary critics applied a varied literary theories and perspectives in order to better understand “my last duchess” and devise Browning’s true intent. Stevenson whom explicated the work in 1959 using techniques that focused on the life of the author, or better known as biograprhical theory. Stevenson, uses a combination of details regarding Brownings life to support the claim that t “My Last Duchess” was highly inspired by a work produced  by Lord Tennyson Byron entitled “Parisina”. Both poems involve a jealous Duke of Ferrara, whom disapproves of his wife’s conduct, which then causes him to have her removed in some way, leaving the Duke free to remarry. Through Stevenson’s perspective one can still effectively argue that Brownings focus within this poem is congruent with the ideas set forth by the Victorian Era, though Stevenson claims that Browinigs was inspired by “Parisiina”, he admits that elements added by Browning- reflection of the concerns regarding womens rights that was prevalent during the time in which the piece was written. For instance, Browning’s choice to characteristically alter the plot, creating a Duke whose suspicion and vengeance is more likely the result of his own megalomania rather than a justified notion is harmonious with the idea that Browning veered towards a more liberal ideology concerning womens rights. Brownings choice to change the Duke into a possessive tyrant may be a reflection of Brownings views of mysogny in noble class society.

B.R.Jerman, a critical review titled “Browning’s Witless Duke” is also published in  the 1950’s, is an argument refuting the claim that the Dukes revelations ,in regards to the late Duchess was a purposeful cautionary tale, in order to convey the expectations the Duke has for his wife to be, whom the envoy is intended to report back to. Jerman, instead claims that the the Duke is not the clever witted man that many ciritics would like him to be, rather he is simply a man who became to excited while showing off his possessions and unwittingly showed his true jealous and possessive self.Rather than appling a biographical theory , like her counterpart Stevenson, Jerman  applies a new criticism perspective as a way to defend her argument. Citing the various words and ideas presented in the work and devising a theory, Jerman is able to successfully argue his perspective. Never the less jerman, like Stevenson, also illuminates the Dukes jealous nature and his need to control the young duchess. Jerman goes on to provide evidence mentioning how the Duchesses charisma was the cause of the Duke’s jealous behavior, feeling as if she did not appreciate his nobility properly he uses his power and authority over her to have all her smiles stop.

1980’s the Duke’s jealousy 

Tucker focuses on the intention of Browning’s lyrics in order to derive meaning of the poem. On the final three pages of Tucker’s criticism he provides his analysis of Browining’s “My Last Duchess”  Tucker effectively argues that  through contradictory word choice Browning helps to close the gap between signs and meanings. By deconstructing the work Tucker makes the claim that the Duke’s jealousy  was merely a mark of the Duke’s own paranoia, by citing the Dukes word choice when describing the Duchesses conduct was always attached to a positive connotation. Through a use of adjectives like “earnest”, “joyful” and “eloquent” throughout the work and connecting them with the supposed negative behavior of the young Duchess, readers can then infer that this notion that caused the Duke to give commands , and stop all smiles is a unfounded accusation. Browning, then is illumniatig a growing concern of womens rights that was passing through Europe during this time.

1990’s Duchess lacks freedom in death

Dupras explicates Browning’s “My Last Duchess” using Derridas theories of deconstruction as well as historicism .Doing so Dupras is able to theorize the extended importance of the portrait of the last Duchess in relation to the Duke as well as the qualities the Duke is looking to attain in a wife. Dupras highlights the Dukes need for control over the Duchess even in death which explains the elaborate frame, the lesser known painter, and the curtains he draws only when and for his own personal satisfaction. It can then be inferred that Dupras, also identifies the Dukes overbearing command over the Duchess, he in fact claims that this obsession continues even after the Duchesses death. Dupras claim regarding the Dukes lasting obsession further illuminates Brownings views over the mysogination practiced in noble societies.

The Voiceless Duchess 2010’s

Bose, unlike other critics, presents a case for women using feminist critical theory arguing that the poem “My Last Duchess” presents the dominance of men and the possessive control they exercise over their spouse. Bose identifies the way the duchess has no voice, the Dukes choice of a monk to paint her and other details that support his claim regarding the subjugation of women during the Victorian era. Bose’s theory regarding Brownings views best support the reoccurring theme found while conducting research of literary critiques. 

Over a course of sixty years critics have utilized various literary theories and techniques, even going as far as to ask Browning himself what his intention was when he created “My Last Duchess”. Each critic has been able to derive some unique aspect of the poem that adds to the conversation. It is universally agreed upon though,  that the true focus of the poem is more on the Duke’s insecurity rather than that of the Duchess. After reviewing the works of the critic it has become even more evident that Browning was using the voice of the Duke to illuminate the mysogination that had become synonomous with the noble  class.



Brianca Jay is a writer, tutor and literary analyst. She has upwards of 100 literary videos on youtube and has presented at several national conferences, with a host of publications across various literary journals. Feel free to connect with Brianca

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