Lamenting over Browning’s “My Last Duchess”

May 7, 2021 | Journal

I like reading good and intricate stories, and Browning’s My Last Duchess tells a mysterious story about a Duke who lost, most likely killed his own wife, and who is now looking for his next victim. Inside the poem there is a puzzle hidden to be found and solved. For this to conclude, I used the critical approaches written by Louis S. Friedland, Joshua Adler and Barbara MacMahon.

In the poem we are introduced to a strong male character, the Duke of Ferrara and his silent listener. The duke is in control, he is the master of his domain. He gives orders, even when he asks. He does not say that he killed the duchess; he is twisting the words, not lying, but not saying anything directly. The listener in the poem is almost identical to the reader. Whereas we, as readers and the listener in the poem are tasked with figuring out and putting the puzzle together about what the duke is saying. But, unlike the listener (who is the messenger) we have more than one chance to do so. The messenger however has only one chance, and on him depends a lot. The future of the next wife of the duke perhaps? Or perhaps the life of the duke? Because “my last” can easily mean my previous…

We might witness a scene where the duke is in the process of looking for a new wife and is talking with the representative of another great house. (Process of marriage at the time between nobles.) The duke is avoiding the truth and is indirect in his words. So nothing is said aloud. Therefore putting together the “wrong” (meaning: we conclude that the duke killed his own wife) would just result in not getting the hand of this maiden. But since there is no direct evidence and no confession, he cannot be called guilty. He successfully hid the truth and led us through his collection of fine arts showing his power and his might. Just like the messenger, we are easy to mislead and get lost in this beautiful hall filled with magnificent pieces.

From another point of view the act of killing can be viewed as a strong metaphor, not necessary the murderous act itself. If we reflect upon the power of the Duchess and her Spot of Joy than this killing or turning of the Duchess into a painting can mean the reduction of the person into an object. The Duke has no power over the feminine aspect, the Duchess is independent and cannot be tamed by the Duke, who is obsessed with power and control. Therefore, he tries to reduce her as much as possible, treating her as an object, as a painting. However, even in this reduced state, the Duchess’ power over the Duke, possibly by her spot of joy, is still stronger, even in a state of an object, a painting she is in power. Thus immortalised by the Duke himself. However, the Duke cannot accept his own defeat in his own household.

Reflecting upon these ideas, I used the Moral-Philosophical Approach to view this poem in a different light, because other than the riddle and the story, there is a deeper message hidden within it. I believe that this poem is in fact a black mirror for society. The value that we are presented with still holds up today. Namely, in Browning’s time, people were “less equal”, women did not have rights and even men were oppressed. The society, humanity and countless lives were exploited by those in power. This still happens even today. However, it is not that all, we treat each other like objects as well. We should rise above this and start viewing our own brethren as humans, not objects that we use and then throw away when we no longer need them. Lives are more important than anything else.