Browning’s “My Last Duchess” - Character of the Duchess
One major obstacle in analyzing the character of the Duchess in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is that whatever information we get about her comes from the most unreliable source, that is, her husband, the Duke, who is her murderer, and who is trying to justify his action in the most high-handed manner. A dramatic monologue reveals the (psychological) intricacies of the character of the speaker and is never authentic about the persons and/or subjects it deals with. Whatever information we get about the Duchess is refracted through the crooked vision of a powerful and eloquent maniac. Browning appears to have modeled the late wife of the Duke after Lucrezia de’ Medici, a daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and Tuscany. The Duchess died under suspicious circumstances, just two years after he married her. She may have been poisoned. The Duke says the Duchess enjoyed the company of other men and implies that she was unfaithful. By all probability that is untrue, at least, the Duke provides no direct evidence.
To unearth the semblance of the character of the Duchess, the readers need to explore the story behind the Duke’s vain boasting. He describes the painting in the manner of an art-critic - “the depth and passion in the earnest glance…… reproduce the faint half-flush that fades along the throat…” He continues to report that she used to bring the red spot of joy on her cheek not only when he gave a ‘favorable’ (look) on her breast, but also when she saw any common person object or event. He says that “her looks went everywhere”, that she would thank and appreciate anything or anyone, that she was too easily impressed, and that she used to smile at anyone who passed by her. No one will be ever convinced that to smile, to thank, to be interested, to be shy, or to talk to people is a crime, or immorality. No one will believe that a wife should look only at her husband, except in societies that believe that all women are naturally evil!
Her other “crimes” are that she is ‘too soon made glad’ and that she is not as discriminating as him, ‘she liked whate’er/She looked on and her looks went everywhere.’ The image of her wandering eye again shows the jealousy of the Duke. Whereas he could not control what she looked at or what she liked in life, he can now control who looks at her by containing her behind a curtain. The girl seems to find some joy in life, something that the Duke never shares. She finds beauty in ‘cherries’, ‘the dropping of the daylight’ and in her ‘white mule’. To the Duke these are ordinary objects beneath his notice; he cannot bear that she finds pleasure in them. Perhaps he cannot bear that she finds pleasure in anything other than him. He certainly feels that she does not appreciate what he was done for her, his ‘gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name’. Thus, in the words of a critic, the Duke “enshrines the Duchess as a model of spontaneity and innocent joy and a victim of her egotistical husband.”
The striking similarity between the Duchess and Porphyria in Porphyria’s Lover is a matter worth mentioning here. Both are victims of their husband and lover’s diseased albeit different sort of possessiveness and both the women tried to live life in their own spontaneous and vivacious terms. Both pieces feature the treatment of women as possessions to negative ends. Porphyria’s lover knows that she is something he cannot have, and thinks the only way to “take” her is to murder her and keep her for himself. If he can’t have her, no one should. Lucrezia’s life is exchanged for a name, and Alfonso II cannot comprehend why she is not more appreciative of his “gift.” As a result he has her killed and searches for a more appreciative replacement, the painting. The Duchess is considered by Alfonso II to be an exchangeable possession that is easily replaceable rather than a human.