The only sin of the last duchess was that she enjoyed life a bit too much. She looked upon everything with favor, and Duke of Ferrara did not take kindly to that. He wanted her eyes to be only for him, and he did not like that a simple sunset or bundle of cherries could make her smile just as beautifully as he could. So the narcissistic and power-hungry Duke gave the word, and she was killed.
If you have not read Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” you should. Better yet, listen to it as you read. The Poetry Foundation has a fantastic audio version. In the poem, the speaker, Duke of Ferrara, is trying to arrange his marriage to a young woman. He is speaking to a servant of the woman’s father, and he is telling the man how he had his last wife killed. Creepy.
Poetry can be an excellent way to study narrative elements, especially when you don’t have the time to break down an entire novel. For Robert Browning’s poem, we will be looking at tone and characterization. If you would like to flex your analysis muscles, read through the poem and try to identify the following:
- The Duke is the speaker of the poem. Pay attention to his word choice as he talks about the painting of his last duchess. What words does he use to describe her? As you listen to the poem, how does the reader sound? How did the Duke feel about his former wife? What were his problems with her? How do you know? Close your eyes and imagine the Duke’s face as you listen. What expression does he wear when he talks about her beauty? What about when he talks about her blushing at others? This is the tone of the poem.
- What is the Duke like? How do you know? Consider what he notices about the painting, the other objects around him, how he points them out, and how he talks about himself. Remember that action is one of the most critical pieces of characterization. What were the Duke’s actions with his last wife? What is he doing now? What do those actions tell us about him as a person?
Tone is the way the speaker or character (or sometimes the author) feels about a subject. How does the Duke feel about his former wife? He should have loved his last duchess, but it is easy to see that her only value to him came from how she made him feel about himself. Lines 21-24 hint that he finds her ability to take pleasure in the world around her obnoxious when he says, “She had/ 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.” Clearly, he wants the poor Duchess to have eyes only for him. Her one purpose is to feed his ego, and when she looks at everything with equal ardor, including his favors, the sunset, and the cherries that “some fool” brought her, it makes the Duke more and more irritated. His use of the word “fool” to describe the sweetheart that thought to bring the Duchess a snack further helps us identify his tone.
Browning’s characterization of the Duke in this poem is superb. He never directly says that Ferrara is an egotistical douche bag, but we quickly pick up on that as we read. Right away we see that the only value the people around him have, especially the women in his life, is to boost his ego and appearance. Even in death, his former Duchess serves a particular purpose. In lines 7-10 he says, “Strangers like you that pictured countenance, /The depth and passion of its earnest glance, /But to myself, they turned (since none puts by /The curtain I have drawn for you, but I).” He’s arranged this painting of his dead wife so that her beautiful face only looks at him. He has more control over her in death, which is the reason he had her killed. The way he speaks of this murder, saying, “I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together” shows a callousness toward her. He talks about killing her as if it were a matter as simple as closing a door.
The Duke’s characterization can be seen in how he speaks of himself as well. When talking about asking her to stop smiling and teaching her “proper” behavior, he says, “E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.” Teaching her how he wanted her to act and behave was beneath him. The better option, the one that served his ego best, was her death. More of his ego is illustrated when he says, “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.” His illustrious “nine-hundred-years-old name” is more precious, in his eyes, than even the wonders of nature.
Finally, toward then end of the poem, Browning cements the characterization of the Duke by having him refer to the grand and opulent surrounds for no other reason than to draw attention to them. As he and the servant are leaving the room he says, “Notice Neptune, though, /Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, /Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” This is, essentially, the Victorian Era way of saying, “Hey, dude, check out my sweet Ferrari. It’s custom.”
So the lesson to be learned from all of this: Let the character’s actions and words speak for them. Don’t tell the reader they are a jerk. Let the reader deduce their jerkiness from the way they treat others and the dickish things they say. Show how they feel about a the things in their world rather than telling. Another thing to note, if you have time to reread the poem (come on, of course you do!) is how the Duchess’s actions help to characterize the Duke.