Gender Expectations and Power Constellations in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”
The situation does not seem to be particularly exciting at all: A wealthy and civilised Renaissance duke chatting harmlessly with the envoy of a count whose daughter he is planning to marry. Before the two men start to discuss the financial details of the marriage, the duke tries to show his best side and presents himself as an art-loving and generous nobleman. But the story takes a chilling turn: While the host and his guest look at the portrait of the last duchess, the duke makes some remarks that suggest he may have murdered his wife.
On the surface, “My Last Duchess” seems to be a startling and entertaining mystery story, but considering the society and the environment that shaped the author, one cannot shake off the feeling that this poem is more than a story about a long-deceased Renaissance nobleman and his recalcitrant and disobedient wife. The poem touches some issues that were prevailing in the Victorian era and were of high interest to Browning’s contemporaries: morality, gender expectations and power relations.
At first glance, this poem creates an agreeable and ordered atmosphere: Robert Browning chose the form of the dramatic monologue presented by a specified speaker and taking place in a clearly defined situation and thus giving orientation to the reader. Besides, the traditional heroic couplets support this impression of regularity and tranquillity. However, these formal features at the same time correspond to one of the poem’s main topics that lurks under this inconspicuous surface: In the course of the monologue the speaker will unintentionally reveal himself as a highly selfish person obsessed with power and control. The form of the dramatic monologue enables the duke to be the only speaker and to have total control about the whole situation. Even the title (“My Last Duchess” and the last words, as well: “for me”, l.56) hints at the duke’s main character traits, his egotism and possessiveness. The protagonist’s self-perception of course differs from this view. He considers himself a respectable nobleman and is sure the count’s envoy will recognise this: The duke has a “nine hundred years old name” (l.33), is a patron of the arts, a master of diplomacy (l.49-52) and has command of the art of understatement (l.35f.). But already the first word of his monologue reveals that he feels as the master in his house: “That’s my last Duchess [...]” (l.1) – with these words he manipulates his guest by commanding him to look at the painting. The repetition of this situation (“Notice Neptune, [...], l.54) supports this impression, as well.
Although the protagonist speaks in a polite way and treats the count’s legate with respect, the addresses to his guest (“Will’t please [...]”, l.5; “We’ll meet [...]”, l.47; “Nay, we’ll go [...]”, l.53) sound rather like orders. The duke is even certain to have the power to look inside his guest’s mind (l.9-13). Besides, a casual remark (“since none puts by [...]”, l.9f.) reveals the speaker’s true nature: He is the one who decides about the access to the fresco and obviously he enjoys this power very much. But while contemplating this painting, the speaker unconsciously reveals that he was not that powerful and superior during his wife’s lifetime. Apparently, the duchess devoted as much attention to other things (and maybe other people, as well, l.44f.) as to the duke. As if he wanted to push away these humbling thoughts, he withdraws by talking about himself in the third person (“not her husband’s presence only”, l.14). This also demonstrates his indignation about the duchess’s disrespectful demeanour, because she did not behave according to the traditional gender hierarchy in which the husband holds the superior position. The fact that the speaker is very disturbed by this issue gets also obvious in some other details: He loses control over his normally very sophisticated way of talking and changes into a rather lax and pejorative style (“such stuff”, l.19; “somehow”, l.32; “such an one”, l.37). Besides, the duke suddenly seems to be haunted by his memories and the atmosphere becomes hectic. This impression is supported by the enjambments (which only now become apparent) and by some asyndetons (l.22f. and l.25-30). The aposiopeses (l.22, 32), however, are ambiguous. On the hand, they might be a symbol for the duke’s confusion and his lack of words, but on the other hand one could interpret them as a proof of the speaker’s disciplined personality (like his utterance that he “chuse never to stoop” no matter what would happen, l.42f.): In his agitation, he risks to show too much of his inner life or even to give away his secret, but he manages to stop himself and finally chooses the right words; he even uses rhetorical figures (diacope: “too soon [...] too easily”, l.22f.; hendiadys: “all and each”, l.29) which have a very suggestive effect.
- Quote paper
- Dipl.-Bibl. Regina Männle (Author), 2006, Gender Expectations and Power Constellations in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/129000