Loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century, My Last Duchess is a classic example of a dramatic monologue, the revelation of the Duke’s character being the poem’s primary aim.
The Duke is the speaker of the poem, and he is entertaining an emissary who has come to negotiate the recently widowed Duke’s marriage to the daughter of another powerful family. As he shows the visitor through his palace, he stops before a portrait of the late Duchess, apparently a young and lovely girl. The Duke begins reminiscing about the portrait sessions, then about the Duchess herself. His musings give way to a diatribe on her disgraceful behavior: he claims she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his “gift of a nine-hundred-years- old name.” As his monologue continues, the reader realizes with ever-more chilling certainty that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess’s early demise: when her behavior escalated, “[he] gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.” Having made this disclosure, the Duke returns to the business at hand - arranging for another marriage.
A tension between sympathy and judgment, a power play between amazement and a sense of morality are among the striking features of dramatic monologue. In My Last Duchess, the combination of villain and aesthete in the Duke creates an especially strong tension. A poem like “My Last Duchess” calculatedly engages its readers on a psychological level. Browning forces his reader to become involved in the poem in order to understand it. What interests us more than the Duke’s wickedness is his immense attractiveness. His conviction of matchless superiority, his intelligence and bland amorality, his poise, his taste for art, his high handed aristocratic manners - all these qualities overwhelm the envoy, causing him, as well as the reader, apparently to suspend judgment of the Duke.
In Browning’s dramatic monologues the speaker is often a manipulator. To some extent, the duke's amorality can be understood in terms of aristocracy. The duke seems controlled by certain forces: his own aristocratic bearing; his relationship to women; and lastly, this particular duchess who confounded him. One can argue that the duke, who was in love with his "last duchess,” is himself controlled by his social expectations, and that his inability to bear perceived insult to his aristocratic name makes him a victim of the same social forces that he represents.
“My Last Duchess” comprises rhyming pentameter lines. The lines do not employ end-stops; rather, they use enjambment—that is, sentences and other grammatical units do not necessarily conclude at the end of lines. Consequently, the rhymes do not create a sense of closure when they come, but rather remain a subtle driving force behind the Duke’s compulsive revelations. The Duke is quite a performer: he mimics others’ voices, creates hypothetical situations, and uses the force of his personality to make horrifying information seem merely colorful. Indeed, the poem provides a classic example of a dramatic monologue: the speaker is clearly distinct from the poet; an audience is suggested but never appears in the poem; and the revelation of the Duke’s character is the poem’s primary aim. Apart from this, symbolism is also used in a couple of places. First, the portrait hanging on the wall which is covered by a curtain which ‘none but the duke could draw’ is symbolic of how the controlling nature of the duke is satisfied when, if not in life then after death, only he has any say in who should look upon his late wife. Also, the bust of Neptune that he points out to the messenger on his way out, symbolizes how he tamed his free-spirited wife, much like Neptune tames the wild spirit of the sea horse.
In this short poem, Browning weaves a compelling tale of mystery, murder and intrigue which in equal parts disgusts and delights the reader. One is appalled at the cruelty and madness of the duke, yet is amazed at the beauty and majesty of the language used, which is in no way below the level of Shakespeare.