My Last Duchess
By Robert Browning
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting and Background
The Portrait: a Fresco
Rhyme: Heroic Couplets
Rhyme: Heroic Couplets
Annotated Text of the Poem
Study Questions
Essay Topics

Type of Work

......."My Last Duchess" is a dramatic monologue, a poem with a character who presents an account centering on a particular topic. This character speaks all the words in the poem. During his discourse, the speaker intentionally or unintentionally reveals information about one or more of the following: his personality, his state of mind, his attitude toward his topic, and his response or reaction to developments relating to his topic . The main focus of a dramatic monologue is this personal information, not the topic which the speaker happens to be discussing. The word monologue is derived from a Greek word meaning to speak alone. 


.......Browning first published poem under the title "I. Italy" in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics, a collection of sixteen Browning poems. Brown changed the title of the poem to "My Last Duchess" before republishing it in 1849 in another collection, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics.

Setting and Background

.......The setting of "My Last Duchess," a highly acclaimed 1842 poem by Robert Browning, is the palace of the Duke of Ferrara on a day in October 1564. Ferrara is in northern Italy, between Bologna and Padua, on a branch of the Po River. The city was the seat of an important principality ruled by the House of Este from 1208 to 1598. The Este family constructed an imposing castle in Ferrara beginning in 1385 and, over the years, made Ferrara an important center of arts and learning. Two members of the family, Beatrice and Isabella, supported the work of such painters as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. 
.......In Browning’s poem, the Duke of Ferrara is modeled after Alfonso II, the fifth and last duke of the principality, who ruled Ferrara from 1559 to 1597 but in three marriages fathered no heir to succeed him. The deceased duchess in the poem was his first wife, Lucrezia de’ Medici, a daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-1574), Duke of Florence from 1537 to 1574 and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569 to 1574. Lucrezia died in 1561 at age 17. In 1598, Ferrara became part of the Papal States.


Speaker (or Narrator): The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara. Browning appears to have modeled him after Alfonso II, who ruled Ferrara from 1559 to 1597. Alfonso was married three times but had no children. The poem reveals him as a proud, possessive, and selfish man and a lover of the arts. He regarded his late wife as a mere object who existed only to please him and do his bidding. He likes the portrait of her (the subject of his monologue) because, unlike the duchess when she was alive, it reveals only her beauty and none of the qualities in her that annoyed the duke when she was alive. Morever, he now has complete control of the portrait as a pretty art object that he can show to visitors.
Duchess: The late wife of the duke. Browning appears to have modeled her after Lucrezia de’ Medici, a daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-1574), Duke of Florence from 1537 to 1574 and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1569 to 1574. The duke says the duchess enjoyed the company of other men and implies that she was unfaithful. Whether his accusation is a fabrication is uncertain. The duchess died under suspicious circumstances on April 21, 1561, just two years after he married her. She may have been poisoned.
Emissary of the Count of Tyrol: The emissary has no speaking role; he simply listens as the Duke of Ferrara tells him about the late Duchess of Ferrara and the fresco of her on the wall. Historically, the emissary is identified with Nikolaus Madruz, of Innsbruck, Austria. 
Count of Tyrol: The father of the duke's bride-to-be. The duke mentions him in connection with a dowry the count is expected to provide.
Daughter of the Count of Tyrol: The duke's bride-to-be is the daughter of the count but appears to be modeled historically on the count's niece, Barbara. 
Frà Pandolph: The duke mentions him as the artist who painted the fresco. No one has identified a real-life counterpart on whom he was based. He may have been a fictional creation of Browning. Frà was a title of Italian friars of the Roman Catholic Church. 
Claus of Innsbruck: The duke mentions him as the artist who created "Neptune Taming a Sea-Horse." Like Pandolph, he may have been a fictional creation. 

The Portrait of the Duchess

.......The portrait of the late Duchess of Ferrara is a fresco, a type of work painted in watercolors directly on a plaster wall. The portrait symbolizes the duke's possessive and controlling nature inasmuch as the duchess has become an art object which he owns and controls.


......."My Last Duchess" is in iambic pentameter, which has ten syllables, or five feet, per line. The ten syllables consist of five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. Lines 1 and 2 of the poem demonstrate the iambic-pentameter pattern. 

That's MY..|..last DUCH..|..ess PAINT..|..ed ON..|..the WALL,

Look ING..|..as IF..|..she WERE..|..a ALIVE..|..I CALL

Rhyme: Heroic Couplets

.......Line 1 rhymes with line 2, line 3 with 4, line 5 with 6, and so on. Pairs of rhyming lines are called couplets. When the lines are written in iambic pentameter, as are the lines of "My Last Duchess," the rhyming pairs are called heroic couplets. 

Internal Rhyme

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss 
Or there exceed the mark"–and if she let(lines 38-39)

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse (line 41)

Summary and Commentary

.......Upstairs at his palace in October of 1564, the Duke of Ferrara–a city in northeast Italy on a branch of the Po River–shows a portrait of his late wife, who died in 1561, to a representative of the Count of Tyrol, an Austrian nobleman. The duke plans to marry the count’s daughter after he negotiates for a handsome dowry from the count. 
.......While discussing the portrait, the duke also discusses his relationship with the late countess, revealing himself–wittingly or unwittingly–as a domineering husband who regarded his beautiful wife as a mere object, a possession whose sole mission was to please him. His comments are sometimes straightforward and frank and sometimes subtle and ambiguous. Several remarks hint that he may have murdered his wife, just a teenager at the time of her death two years after she married him, but the oblique and roundabout language in which he couches these remarks falls short of an open confession. 
.......The duke tells the Austrian emissary that he admires the portrait of the duchess but was exasperated with his wife while she was alive, for she devoted as much attention to trivialities–and other men–as she did to him. He even implies that she had affairs. In response to these affairs, he says, “I gave commands; / “Then all [of her] smiles stopped together.” 
.......Does commands mean that he ordered someone to kill her?
.......Does it mean he reprimanded her?
.......Does it mean he ordered some other action? 
.......The poem does not provide enough information to answer these questions. Nor does it provide enough information to determine whether the duke is lying about his wife or exaggerating her faults. Whatever the case, research into her life has resulted in speculation that she was poisoned. Browning himself says the duke either ordered her murdered or sent her off to a convent.
.......That the duke regarded his wife as a mere object, a possession, is clear. For example, in lines 2 and 3, while he and the emissary are looking at the painting, he says, “I call that piece a wonder, now.” Piece explicitly refers to the portrait but implicitly refers to the duchess when she was alive. Now is a telling word in his statement: It reveals that the duchess is a wonder in the portrait, because of the charming pose she strikes, but implies that she was far less than a wonder when she was alive. 
.......Of course, the engaging pose the duchess strikes is not the only reason the duke prizes the portrait. He prizes it also because the duchess is under his full control as an image on the wall. She cannot play the coquette; she cannot protest or disobey his commands; she cannot do anything except smile out at the duke and to anyone else the duke allows to view the portrait. 
.......As the duke and the emissary turn to go downstairs, the duke points out another art object–a bronze art object showing Neptune taming a sea horse. The emissary might well have wondered whether the duke regarded himself as Neptune and the sea horse as the duchess. 
.......What the emissary plans to tell the count about the duke is open to question. But in real life, the duke did marry the woman he discussed with the emissary.


My Last Duchess
By Robert Browning

Text of the Poem Annotations
. .
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall painted. . . wall: Reference to a fresco, a painting executed on wet plaster. 
Looking as if she were alive. I call I . . . now: He refers not only to the painting but also to his wife as she
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands  was in life, a mere object (that piece). Now indicates he regards his
Worked busily a day, and there she stands. wife as a wonder in the painting but something less when she lived.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said.............................5 you: emissary from the Count of Tyrol.
"Frà Pandolf" by design: for never read Frà Pandolf: The painter; by design: on purpose.
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, countenance: face. The duke likes the painting, but he later reveals
The depth and passion of its earnest glance, that he did not like the countess herself.
But to myself they turned (since none puts by none. . . curtain: No one opens the curtain except me
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)................................10 but I: Forgivable grammatical error. The pronoun should be me, not I,
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, but I rhymes with by (previous line). durst: archaic form of dare
How such a glance came there; so, not the first such a glance: The painting really flatters her.
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot spot. . . joy: Enjambment, in which the sense of one line of verse
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps...............................15 carries over to the next line without a pause
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps mantle: Cloak or cape.
Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint lines 17-19 ("Pain . . . throat): Frà Pandolf believes the color of the "half-flush" 
Must never hope to reproduce the faint on her throat is too subtle to capture accurately on canvas.
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough.......................20
For calling up that spot of joy. She had lines 21-30: The duchess annoyed the duke because she was 
A hearthow shall I say?too soon made glad, just as pleased with a sunset, some cherries, or a ride on a mule as 
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er she was with him.
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,...............................25 favour: A small gift.
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool bough . . . her: Apparently a double-entendre, the second meaning a
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule sexual one.
She rode with round the terraceall and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,.....................30
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,–good! but thanked
Somehow–I know not how–as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name My . . . name: The duke comes from an old aristocratic family 
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame named Este.
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill....................................35
In speech–(which I have not)–to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark"–and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set....................................40 be lessoned: Be instructed.
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, forsooth: in truth (archaic).
E'en then would be some stooping: and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Oh . . .grew: The Duchess smiled at all men and, according to the 
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without duke, did more than smile at some men.
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;........45 I gave . . .together: He reprimanded her. Then she ceased her
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands flirtation. Or, he gave commands to kill her, and then "all smiles stopped
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet together."
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence munificence: Great generosity.
Is ample warrant that no just pretence................................50 warrant: Guarantee; no just . . . disallowed: The duke will demand
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; a considerable dowry from the count.
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed daughter: In real life, she was the count's niece.
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go my object: The duke again refers to a woman as an object.
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, Neptune: Roman name for Poseidon, god of the sea in Greek mythology.
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,...................................55 Taming a sea-horse: To the duke, the sea horse is a symbol of the 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! women.
Claus of Innsbruck: Another artist.



.......The theme is the arrogant, authoritarian mindset of a proud Renaissance duke, who says, "I choose / Never to stoop" (lines 42-43). In this respect, the more important portrait in the poem is the one the duke "paints" of himself with his words. 

Women as Mere Objects

.......Several lines in the poem suggest that the duke had treated his wife as a mere object. He expected her to be beautiful to look at, but little more. But the duchess was human; she had faults. When the duke became annoyed by them and by her smiling face, he "gave commands" that ended her smiling. In other words, he apparently ordered her to be killed. The word last in the title suggests that the young woman in the portrait was not the duke's first wife. One wonders whether his previous wife (or wives) met the same fate and whether his next duchess will end up like his "last duchess."


.......In his poetry, Browning occasionally uses enjambment, a literary device in which the sense of one line of verse is carried over to the next line without a pause. Here is an example:

Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands

Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps

Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Notice that scarcely belongs with the words that follow it, not with the words that precede it. Consequently, no pause occurs after it. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Do you believe the speaker murdered his last duchess? Explain your answer. 
2. Write a short psychological profile of the duke. Use information from the poem, as well as Internet and library research, to support your thesis.
3. In your opinion, what is the meaning of these lines: "[S]he liked whate'er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere" (lines 23-24).
4. Does the duke plan to marry the count's daughter for the dowry he will receive?