An analysis of the context in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

My goodness there are some epic poems in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology section on Power and Conflict. From the pithy treatise on humanity in Ozymandias to the quasi-Biblical woe-begotten tale of London and then Stealing The Boat from the Romantic epic-to-beat-all-epics in Wordsworth’s The Prelude… now we come to a portrait of megalomania personified in My Last Duchess by one of the Victorian era’s most weighty and critically-acclaimed poets, Robert Browning.

Now, although it’s in the Love and Relationships section, you’d do well to read about Porphyria’s Lover as it gives you a bit of insight into another Browning monologue. In fact, this too is a twisted love-story, in a “used to love her, but I had to kill her (or did I?)” kind of way.

We’ve moved on from the Romantics with their passions and their feelings, and into the Victorian era of poetry: bleaker and more pessimistic about life. This is the era of morality – and a superficial morality at that, where your appearance was everything and yet the Victorians were a seething mass of repressed emotions. Think Jekyll and Hyde. The advent of alternative theories about the world and about history – other than the ones set out in Genesis – the rise of sociology and texts about morality, society and humanity made people really question where our morality and our values came from. On the surface, you’ve got a society that invents policemen and puts skirts on provocatively-shaped chair legs so they don’t make anyone feel a bit sexy. Underneath, you’ve got widespread prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. Victoria had been queen for five years when this poem was published, so society is stuck more between Victorian and Romantic. It’s a long way from Jekyll and Hyde which was published in 1886, the height of that very contradictory “Victorian Morality”. Still, morality, money and power are right at the heart of this poem and influence it a great deal.

And into that context comes Robert Browning. The poem was written prior to 1842, and published in his Dramatic Lyrics which also included Porphyria’s Lover. Unlike Porphyria’s Lover, which was included in the “Madhouse Cells” section, My Last Duchess was included in the “Italy and France” section. I don’t know what that means. Does it mean that Browning didn’t think the Duke of Ferrara crazy, or that he thinks him more indicative of the Italians?

I think it’s interesting that when thinking of the literary tradition into which this poem fits, I was actually thinking more of the narrative literature and prose of the time. It is some years after Oliver Twist for example, which finds the same hypocrisies in the church and in society that you may find in Blake’s poetry. It’s also a little after the publication of Nicholas Nickleby, but it is a long way from Dickens’ social epics. I find Victorian poetry a lot darker than Romantic poetry, picking up more on the ideas of Blake than of Wordsworth. Browning made a couple of visits to Italy and was influenced by the places he visited and the stories he heard. Browning is also a master of drama, which is why I find him more like a novelist in many ways than a poet: his characters seem to weave stories of their own, albeit short.

In a few lines, with few words, Browning depicts characters that it takes lesser writers many chapters to convey. He allows us to create the backstory and to work out the mysteries of what is going on in the poems. Although it would be many years before psychology would become a field of scientific interest, he creates characters that are psychologically flawed, deeply interesting and very dramatic. Murder and monologue might be his by-lines for these poems, because you see the same theme in several of his monologues, from The Laboratory to Porphyria’s Lover. 

Not unlike that other master of the psychologically-flawed, Shakespeare, Browning takes historical characters and tells their stories. He’s just as carefree with the actual details: these are not historical biographies that he is writing. And like Shakespeare, Browning creates a voice for his characters through his use of dramatic monologue. Of course, Shakespeare’s characters’ dramatic monologues are deeply revealing of their speaker and the speaker’s state-of-mind, and these are too. A difference is that this poem is not a soliloquy. It is one side of a conversation, in which we are placed in the poem and forced to adopt the role of a character.

His poetry deals often with ‘exotic’ characters and themes. His characters are often removed from the present either in geography or in time. My Last Duchess is both of those, set in Italy in the Sixteenth Century.

So who was the real Duke of Ferrara, to whom the monologue belongs? And, more importantly, is it relevant? Let’s look at the speaker of the poem.

Alfonso II d’Este was the Duke of Ferrara from 1559 – 1597 (think of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I in England, and the tail end of the Renaissance in Italy, which was very much on the descent) and he was in fact the last Duke of Ferrara. I think that in itself is kind of interesting. You’ve got the end of Italian influence in Europe and the growth of new empires: the British, the Spanish, the French and even the Dutch, as the old world begins to colonise the new. Italy’s corrupt city states are definitely declining. Add to that a man who is at the end of his family line, and you’ve got some interesting context about a civilisation that is on the decline and yet is unaware of that.

The end of family lines was a real gothic motif in literature… you see it in The Castle of Otranto, the “first” gothic tale. Oh, and there you go, a crazy Italian noble at the end of the family line. You see it in other gothic novels as well, from The Mysteries of Udolpho to The Italian. Even Frankenstein has echoes of it: the patriarchal villain who runs the family, obsessed with family names and the continuity of the line. No doubt, then, if Browning knew the story of Alfonso II, it could have been one of the details that attracted him to use Alfonso as the character behind the monologue. Cruel and tyrannical husbands are ten-a-penny in gothic fiction. The end of the family name is another frequent gothic device, as is a historical or exotic setting.

There are other details about Alfonso II’s life that may also have appealed to Browning if he was making a conscious choice about who the monologue belonged to. He could, after all, have picked the name out of a book at random, like I used to do when writing stories – opening the telephone book and running my finger down the page until I found a surname I liked. We know Browning read about Ferrara when researching another poem called Sordello so it’s not beyond reason that something about Alfonso II stuck in his mind. In fact, in 1842, the year that the poem was probably written, Browning reviewed a book called Conjectures and Researches concerning the Love Madness and Imprisonment in Turquato Tasso by Richard Henry Wilde, which is, guess what, about love and madness in Italy… Dukes, nobles and Italian history… and perfect inspirational fodder for Browning.

So does it matter who the real Duke was? I don’t think so. I think there are aspects of Ferrara’s real life that Browning would have found intriguing, and it was a name in common circulation at the time. He had three wives, and the first of which, Lucrezia di Medici, came from an interesting family herself. Poison was suspected in her death, but it could equally have been any number of natural causes or diseases, like TB, which it is now believed that she died of. Alfonso’s death and lack of children meant that the Ferrara name all but died with him.

Ferrara was also a patron of the arts, paying for artistic works and supporting the works of many young artists, including Turquato Tasso, mentioned before. His name might not mean anything to you (or much to me) but he was one of the most popular and well-known Italian poets. A poet, who, guess what, was obsessed by the fact that he thought Ferrara was going to murder him. He also became obsessed with some of the subjects of his poetry. Still, instead of the madness of a love-tortured poet, Browning adapts it slightly and we see it from his jealous patron’s view. Like Ozymandias which picks up on the notion of the relationship between artist and patron, this does too. No wonder the true life story of Tasso and Ferrara was one that Browning thought interesting enough to write about.

So, you have the essential ingredients for a tale of intrigue: a rich aristocratic Italian, jealousy, a dead wife, artists and their subjects, Not unlike Shakespeare’s version of Richard III, however, there is a lot of fiction added to the facts, and many people believe the Browning fiction rather than the fact that it was the artist who was a bit crazy jealous.

What it is very important to do, however, is remember that this is a piece of literature, a poem, a fiction. You don’t have to know much more than the fact that Browning borrowed from real life and seemed very interested in the mysteries, intrigues and plots of late medieval Italy. Poisons, murders, plots, jealousies, suspicion, violent outbursts, intrigues… what’s not to like? There is little to link the poetic version of Alfonzo with the real life one, excepting he was an Italian noble with considerable power who had a number of wives and who was a patron of the arts.

The fictional Mrs Ferrara, a.k.a. the “Last Duchess” is therefore Lucrezia di Medici, the Duke’s first wife. The relationship depicted in the poem is as fictional as the character of the Duke himself. Still, some believed that she was poisoned.

What do we know for real?

First, she was young – only thirteen when she married Alfonzo in 1558. He was older, aged twenty-four. She died only two years into their marriage, and it was rumoured that they spent most of their marriage apart as her husband was away fighting. Some people believed that she’d been poisoned, but most people believe she died of natural causes. Still, her death, as in the poem, is all a bit of a mystery. Her family LOVED art, and her father founded one of Italy’s best art collections, the Uffizi. Her oldest sister Maria was engaged to Ferrara, but she died in 1557, meaning that Cosimo de Medici’s attempts to unite the Este family and the Medici family fell to Lucrezia. Her other older sister was in fact murdered by her jealous husband – and therein you have a loose plot that links us to My Last Duchess. In fact, her youngest brother, Pietro, some ten years her junior, was ALSO murdered by his wife because he cheated on her. However, the Medici dynasty was a relatively new dynasty, founded on a banking family, so no doubt the Medici patriarchs tried hard to make marriages that bonded the family to others. They did a good job as well, with several Popes and Queens in the mix.

The poem is actually one side of a conversation between Ferrara and the marriage broker who has come to arrange another marriage. We’d assume then that it’s either the person who’s come to arrange his second marriage or his third. Or even, why not, a mysterious fourth marriage that wasn’t forthcoming. It’s a fiction, in any case, since the first marriage he had was one to a new and upcoming family (who would have been grateful for that gift of a nine-hundred year old name) and not the second or third. His second wife lasted seven years. Interestingly, crazy poet Turquato Tusso wrote a few sonnets about Barbara, Ferrara’s second wife. She definitely died of TB. You can see Browning picking up another bit of the story that interested him (the dedications of a crazy poet) and conveniently forgot the other bits. She was the daughter of a king, so I’m pretty sure the real Ferrara wouldn’t have felt the need to impress his status upon the marriage broker. She was from the Habsburg family, not some up-starts like the Medicis. Between his second and third wife, there were seven years – suggesting perhaps an intenser period of mourning. Still, he marries his third wife, Margherita Gonzaga in 1579. She was fifteen and he was forty-five. Still, they were married for almost twenty years until the Duke died. Although she was from a minor family line, Ferrara would have had no need to threaten the marriage broker about fidelity, given that all evidence suggests that he and his second wife had a happy marriage. A story, then, that Browning plays with, without sticking to those mundane things that you or I might call facts. There is no evidence that Ferrara killed any of his wives, that he was a jealous man, or that he was the arrogant, maniacal villain depicted in the poem. That’s all from Browning’s imagination.

In terms of the context, then, you can see a little about the types of things that Browning wrote about, often using the dramatic monologue to explore the darker side of people. You can see the advent of Victorian morality and the decline of those passionate, emotion-filled poems of the Romantics. Browning has picked an interesting back-story from which he picks out some big ideas such as morality, power and fidelity, as well as exploring the relationship between artists and their subjects, as well as their patrons.

In the next post, I’ll look at the form and structure of the poem, as well as a bit of background about the monologue itself.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.



2 thoughts on “An analysis of the context in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

  1. Pingback: An analysis of the form and structure of My Last Duchess | Teaching English

  2. Pingback: An analysis of the language and imagery in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess | Teaching English

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