My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

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Here, you will find a summary and questions/answers to chapter 3 (poetry) “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning which is a part of Class 12 Alternative English syllabus for students studying under the Nagaland Board of School Education (NBSE).

my last duchess

Summary: In the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, the Duke of Ferrara utilises a portrait of his previous wife as a discussion piece in the poem. The Duke speaks to a representative of his bride-to-family is about his former wife’s perceived faults, revealing his obsession with controlling others in the process. Browning employs this fascinating psychological depiction of a heinous character to criticise the exploitation of women and power abuses.

The speaker (the Duke of Ferrara) draws a guest’s attention to a painting of his former wife, the Duchess of Ferrara, that hangs on the wall. Fra Pandolf, who painted it, has worked hard on it, and the Duke praises it for its realism. The duke invites the visitor to sit and examine the art. The duke then reveals that he purposely specified the painter’s name because outsiders like the emissary always look at the duchess’s painted face—with its deep, passionate, and earnest gaze—and turn to the duke, as if daring to question how such an emotion came into her face. The duke emphasises that the guest is not the first to pose this topic.

In his opinion, it wasn’t just his presence that brought a smile to the duchess’ painted eyes or a glow to her painted cheeks; he speculates that Fra Pandolf may have complimented her by saying “her shawl drapes over her wrist too much” or “paint could never recreate the faint half-blush that’s fading on her throat.” The duke claims that the former duchess thought pleasant compliments like that were enough to make her blush, and he condemns her, haltingly, for being too easily pleased or impressed. He also claims she liked everything and everyone she saw, despite the fact that his description says she was ogling everyone who crossed her path. The duke objects that everything was the same and made his former duchess equally happy, whether it was a brooch or present from him that she wore at her chest, the sun setting in the West, a branch of cherries that someone in the orchard snapped off a tree for her, or the white mule she rode around the terrace. He alleges that she would respond to every one of them with the same kind words or blush. The duke also opposes her method of thanking men, though he finds it difficult to express his worries. He specifically laments that she regards his ancestry and social standing (his 900-year-old name) as equally valuable as any other person’s gifts to her.

The duke rhetorically questions if anyone would lower himself to dispute with someone over their actions. The duke imagines a hypothetical situation in which he would confront the former duchess: he says that even if he were good with words and could clearly say, “This characteristic of yours disgusts me,” or “Here you did too little or too much,” and if the former duchess had let herself be degraded by changing, rather than being stubborn and making excuses, the act of confronting her would be beneath him, and he refuses to ever lower himself like that.

Following this, the duke returns to the subject of his former wife’s indiscriminate happiness, complaining to his friend that she smiled at everyone, including him, whenever they passed. The duke reveals that she began smiling even more at others, so he issued orders, and all her smiles ceased forever, presumably because he had her slain. She now only exists in the painting.

The duke then asks the guest to up and accompany him downstairs to meet the rest of the guests. He also claims that the Count, revealed here as the guest’s master and the father of the duke’s future bride-to-be, is so well-known for his monetary generosity that no dowry request the duke could make would be refused. The duke then swiftly adds that, since the outset of their negotiations, he has stressed that the Count’s beautiful daughter, not the dowry, is his major goal.

The duke continues his speech by asking that he and the Count’s messenger join him downstairs, and on the way, he draws the emissary’s attention to a statue of the God Neptune taming a seahorse, a one-of-a-kind work of art fashioned in bronze specifically for him by Claus of Innsbruck.

Answer the following questions briefly. 

1. What is the painting a metaphor for?

Answer: The picture in Robert Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ is a metaphor for his previous wife, the last duchess. The duchess is not actually on the wall; rather, this is a painting or likeness of her that serves as a metaphor for her throughout the poem.

2. What are the circumstances under which the Duke and the envoy meet?

Answer: The duke, who had lately been widowed, was set to marry the count’s daughter, so the count dispatched an envoy to negotiate the marriage. The duke happened to entertain the envoy when he learned about his previous duchess. These are the situations that bring the duke and the envoy together in the poem.

3. Use any five adjectives to describe the character of the Duke.

Answer: The Duke’s character is mentioned in the poem primarily via his acts, rather than through his words. Jealousy, arrogance, control, suspicion, and possessiveness are some of the characteristics expressed by the poet.

4. What is the significance of the reference to the statue of Neptune by the Duke?

Answer: The poet indicates Neptune as one object of art to tame the Duchess or to tame her by assuming the Duke himself as a god.

Explain the following lines with reference to the context.

1. A heart-how shall I say? -too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she Liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

a. What does ‘too soon made glad’ mean?

Answer: The lines above are taken from Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” written during the reign of Queen Victoria.

The line ‘too soon made glad’ refers to the Duke’s description of his former wife, who is overjoyed by too many things. This term expresses the Duke’s concern with his wife’s pleasure and his resentment of her ability to find happiness and contentment in the tiniest of things. The Duke will not accept that she felt pleasure in the things around her.

The Duke clearly despised the thought of her approaching everything the same way. She was obviously not the one to discriminate and be biassed, but the Duke despised the concept that she did not pay him extra care and treated him with the same dedication that she did everything else. His jealousy and possessiveness are palpable.

b. Does the Duke view his Duchess favourably in these lines?

Answer: In the given lines, the Duke does not have a good opinion of his Duchess. He discovers her enjoyment in other places, which he finds unpleasant, and he may feel that he wasn’t the most special thing for her. When she is enjoying her surroundings, it demonstrates his envy. The Duke’s attitude and sentiments toward his Duchess’ emotions reveal to us how crazy he is. Any normal person would be overjoyed, if not lucky, to have such a person as his wife, but we don’t see the link here when the Duke expresses his jealously and animosity towards her feelings of delight and happiness over trivial matters. In the following lines of the poem, we find the Duke simply complaining and resentful of the Duchess, and he considers all parts of her behaviour to be torture towards him. The Duke believes that she should only show her dedication and attention to him, putting him above all others.

2. 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
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame

a. Why is the speaker displeased with the woman being referred to?

Answer: The Duke is upset with the woman, i.e., the Duchess, since the way she thanked people seemed to imply that she thought the small favours they did for her were just as important as what the Duke did for her. The Duke states that, while thanking others for doing things for her is fine, the manner in which she did so appears to be needless and a ploy to arouse his sentiments for her. He tries to justify his statement by claiming that he has given her his “nine hundred-year-old name,” a tie to a long-standing aristocratic family with power and reputation and that she should be grateful exclusively to him.

b. What do these lines tell us about the character of the Duke?

Answer: The Duke was pompous and arrogant, believing himself to be the ultimate ruler over his Duchess, even to the point of manipulating her emotions. The Duke’s family has been running things in Ferrara for a thousand years, and he believes that this makes him superior to the Duchess, who does not have the same ancestry. He believes the Duchess should prioritise the high status of her marriage over the simple pleasures of life. The Duke appears to be a self-important character who believes he is the ideal person to do anything, even when everyone else wishes he wouldn’t. He is unaware of life’s simple pleasures and believes that only social advancement is significant. He also believes it is unnecessary to bow down to thank someone who has aided you if he is of lower social standing.

Answer the following questions in detail. 

1. Paint a picture of the Duke’s character based on the poem.

Answer: In many aspects, the Duke appears to be a psychologically troubled individual. He narrates his final duchess in a monologue in which he appears to be talking to himself because of the complete lack of the audience — a quality only egotistic, narcissistic, and self-centred persons possess. The Duke is not simply an overprotective, jealous madman (who supposedly murdered his wife for smiling too much), but he is also an arrogant nobleman who is solely concerned with himself, his title, and his fortune. By the end of the poem, a large list of characteristics may be used to define the Duke’s personality: narcissistic, ego-centred, mentally disordered, selfish, arrogant, narrow-minded, manipulative, materialistic, and, worst of all, most certainly a serial killer.

2. Why does the Duke appear to be unhappy with his last duchess?

Answer: In the poem “My Last Duchess,” the Duke appears to be dissatisfied with his last Duchess because he cannot reconcile the fact that her deep, passionate gaze was not reserved completely for him. He only remembers her through his harsh tone, implying that her attitude towards humans and nature both insulted him because she did not show special regard to his family name and heritage. He refuses to descend to convey his affections to her, instead “giving orders” to have her slain. He alleges she flirted with everyone and was unappreciative of his status. Her happy personality of finding delight in the smallest of things irked him, and he found her generous personality of thanking anyone disgusting and inappropriate. He believed that she should elevate him above all else and keep him above all areas of her existence. He felt deceived and underestimated by her unreserved and joyful attitude toward her surroundings and everyone around her. We discover that his foolishness had trumped his ability to be truly happy and content with his Duchess.

3. What is the impression that the Duke is trying to create of the Duchess in the eyes of his audience?

Answer: The Duke is attempting to show the evil side of the Duchess, which we find to be false. We can only sympathise with the Duchess, who has succumbed to the Duke’s vanity and brutality. The Duchess’s life as the Duke’s wife brings a sense of helplessness and despair as we try to understand what could have gone through her who was only joyful and sensible to everyone around her.

The poem begins with the Duke displaying a portrait of his last Duchess to the emissary, who has come to negotiate the Duke’s marriage to the daughter of another prominent family. As the poem progresses, he tells us about his sentiments for his prior wife, and we come to comprehend the nature of both the Duke and the Duchess as a result. His tone hardens as he recalls how both human and nature could impress her, which irritated him because she did not show special favour to his name and heritage. It chills us when we learn through the lines that he was the cause of her early demise. “I gave commands, and then all smile stopped together.”

4. Explain the theme of appearance versus reality as expressed in the poem.

Answer: The poem ‘My Last Duchess’ illustrates the issue of appearance versus reality through the painting of the Duchess and the Duke’s reaction to it. The Duke appears to admire art and appearance but is incapable of appreciating beauty in reality. However, life is infinitely more beautiful than art, and no artist can create anything more than a carbon copy. The Duke is unable to describe what it was about the previous Duchess that irritated him, but it was the fact that, since she was real and human, she lacked the professional polish and perfection that an artist can give to his copy. The Duke values the painted copy of the Duchess more than he values the subject in person. He has preserved the image of the Duchess in his own gallery and sits there coveting and admiring it, but when she was alive, he could only find fault with her.

We learn from his conversation with the envoy that the Duke wanted entire dedication, sacrifice, and attention from her. He considers himself to be a god-like figure, so he desired to have complete control over her. Again, when he grew bored of her, he said, ‘I gave commands,’ and he had his wife murdered, leaving only the image.

5. How does the poet use the theme of power in the poem?

Answer: The central theme of Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is ‘power,’ specifically the Duke’s social and political status and his ambition to govern the domestic sphere, i.e. his marriage, in the same way as he rules his territories. He reigns with an iron grip and sees everything he has and everyone he interacts with as an opportunity to broaden his power base. Understanding the speaker’s monologues through the poem allows us to gain an understanding of his thinking, which is that spouses must be dominated, servants must acknowledge his authority, and fancy goods in his art collection demonstrate his influence on the world. The Duke believes that he has control over all elements of life in his domain and that it is up to him to determine whether to show people his tyranny or benevolence. The Duke is a man who is used to getting his own way and wielding immense authority over everyone with whom he comes into touch.

Think and discuss.

1. The Duke is brutally honest with the Count’s envoy, even revealing that he ordered his previous wife to be killed. Do you think this is his way of conveying a message as to the kind of behaviour he will expect from his new wife, or does he think himself above the law? Justify your answer.

Answer: The poem’s speaker, the Duke, informs us that he is receiving an emissary who has come to discuss the Duke’s marriage. As he walks the guest through his palace, he comes to a halt in front of a photo of the late Duchess and begins reminiscing over it. His musings give rise to a diatribe about her terrible behaviour, including charges that she flirted with everyone and did not value his prestige. We learn with even more sickening confidence that the Duke was responsible for the Duchess’ early death. The Duke’s arguments are, in some ways, a safeguard given to the emissary in case he marries. He wants to send a message to his prospective bride that he is in charge and that everything should be done to please him. Browning employs the concept of power to show us that the Duke believes he is above all laws and that he can be anyone he wants to be and do whatever he wants. His statement about issuing the order to kill the Dutchess demonstrates how far he is ready to go in order to achieve his desires. It is clear that the Duke is communicating a message of caution and how she should conduct herself as his new wife.

2. What does the poem tell you about the position of women in society at that age?

Answer: The poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning is a monologue set in 16th century Italy, in which the Duke of Ferrara is speaking to a court’s messenger about his impending marriage to the court’s daughter. The entire poem portrays the Duke’s domineering personality. The usage of “mine” in the poem demonstrates the objectification of a person, namely the Dutchess, and he refers to her as “his” to demonstrate possession. This type of behaviour was common in the 16th century when women were regarded as inferior because they were classified as man’s property. During that period, most societies were extremely patriarchal. Marriage was essentially an economic arrangement for them, rather than having sentimental hopes. The Duke bargains for a new bride in purely economic terms. According to the poem, the Duke appeared unable to possess her, so he reduced her to a painting that only he is permitted to gaze at and control, hidden behind a curtain.

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