‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’: these famous words begin one of Robert Browning’s most famous (and widely studied) dramatic monologues, ‘My Last Duchess’. But what does Browning mean by having the speaker of his line gesture to his last duchess, or rather the painting of her?
Browning (1812-89) was a pioneer of the dramatic monologue form, which is so effective not just because it allows the poet to speak to us in the guise of a fictional or historical character, but because we are – through the ‘dramatic’ form the poem takes – ushered into that character’s confidence. Browning’s dramatic monologues thus often require careful analysis, because of the way we are invited to approach the words of the poem critically, aware that we are being confided in by the poem’s speaker but also conscious of the fact that this speaker may be concealing (or only partially managing to conceal) sinister behaviour.
In the case of this poem, it’s spoken by the Duke of Ferrara, chatting away to an acquaintance (for whom we, the reader, are the stand-in) and revealing a sinister back-story lurking behind the portrait of his late wife, the Duchess, that adorns the wall. It’s easy enough to summarise ‘My Last Duchess’ in a one-sentence synopsis like this, but how Browning unnerves us with the Duke’s account of the portrait, and his relationship with his wife, lies in what he hints or reveals as much as in what he simply states.
The poem begins:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Even before that famous opening line, ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’, we’re given the location first of all: Ferrara, a city in northern Italy. Given the words ‘my last Duchess’, the first line immediately reveals to us that this is the Duke of Ferrara speaking to us. Because of the performative gesture implicit within that opening line (‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’ being almost accompanied by an imagined flourish, as the Duke’s finger points at the portrait hanging on the wall), we can say we’re in dramatic monologue territory: the speaker of the poem is addressing us as his audience (a man, whom the Duke addresses as ‘Sir’ at several points), in a specific setting.
Thereafter, we learn that the Duke’s wife is dead: again, this is implied by the use of the subjunctive mood in the second line (‘Looking as if she were alive’: i.e., she isn’t any more). Fra Pandolf, we deduce, is the artist who painted the Duchess’s portrait. He worked hard at the painting for a day and this portrait, which the Duke considers ‘a wonder’, is the result.
The Duke goes on to use the look on his dead wife’s face as a way of discussing her character, and telling his guests about her personality. The clever almost-metonymy of that first line (‘my last Duchess’ is really ‘a painting of my last Duchess’) acts almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the Duke proceeds to talk about his dead wife and not about the painting of her.
Yet the portrait acts as the catalyst for this analysis of her character: it wasn’t simply the Duke’s presence in the room as she sat for the portrait that caused her to look so pleased; indeed, even the most neutral and professional requests and pleasantries from the painter would have made her blush with delight, because she was easily flattered when people praised her beauty.
What’s more, she had a roving eye (‘her looks went everywhere’), so even though she was married to the Duke, she sought out praise and flattery from other people (especially men). The focus is on the visual, right from that opening line onwards. Looks, glances, eyes, how people view and are viewed: all of these are central to Browning’s poem.
As the poem progress towards its sinister revelation, we realise that the Duke gave orders to others, perhaps hired henchmen or assassins, to kill the Duchess for her (perceived) infidelities. And now, the Duke is already arranging for his next marriage: indeed, the Duke’s guest is a representative of another nobleman, a Count, whose daughter the Duke is planning to make his next duchess.
‘My Last Duchess’ is a masterpiece because it does what Browning’s dramatic monologues do best: invites us into the confidence of a speaker whose conversation reveals more about their personality and actions than they realise. And right from that opening line, ‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall’, we find ourselves in the company of a duke whose power and title hide a capacity for cruelty and a sexual insecurity which lead him to murder his wife (wives?). Note that the Duke refers to his last Duchess painted on the wall, not his first: and we have an unsettling feeling that this next duchess may not be his last, either.