My Last Duchess as a Dramatic Monologue
A dramatic monologue is a form of poem in which there is always a lone speaker and at least one interlocutor maintaining a perfect reticence but listening to and influencing the speaker Moreover, to be dramatic the monologue must involve not merely an overall impressive scene but also a specific psychological situation intensely dramatic in the exploration of the psyche of the protagonist
Browning’s “My Last Duchess” suitably conforms to this definition of the dramatic monologue. The locale of the poem is the picture gallery of the Duke of Ferrara in the Duke’s palace in Italy. It is the Duke who speaks throughout the poem and he addresses the envoy sent by a neighbouring Count with the proposal of his daughter’s marriage to the Duke The Duke takes the ambassador to the portrait of his last Duchess and starts speaking very informally:
“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive”
The informal beginning and the ‘colloquial’ tone (“Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt / Whene’er I passed her”), the two essential prerequisites of the dramatic monologue, are prominent in “My Last Duchess“. Browning neatly manipulates the dramatic opening and keeps the reader’s attention in deliberate indecision of a suspense-packed drama by putting mystic utterances like “I call/ That piece a wonder, now”, in the mouth of the Duke.
The psychological curiosity that a good dramatic monologue often has, is not also missing here. As the poem starts the reader only knows that the Duke has lost his wife but gradually the reader is placed into the psyche of the egoistic widower who would not tolerate his wife to disgrace his nine-hundred-years-old name by ignoring her social status and receiving the addresses of every admirer with the same “approving speech/ Or blush”.
Browning’s ‘subtle psychologizing‘, to borrow A. Symon’s phrase, nicely spotlights the cruelty of the Duke. His cruelty prevents him from even warning the Duchess when he thinks that her conduct falls short of being proper and up to the status:
“Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?”
Then all smiles stop together”.
Thus the revelation of the diseased mind of the Duke is effected by a monopolised conversation and this gives the poem a psychological dimension found in characters involved in highly dramatic structure.
The dramatic parentage of “My Last Duchess” may also be sought to other aspects of the Duke’s character. Indeed, the objective of a good dramatic monologue is not merely to shed abundant light on the character’s major obsession, that is not merely to be a psychological anatomy’, but to highlight the other traits of the protagonist’s complex character. Browning subtly hints at the cupidity of the Duke who expects a fairly handsome dowry from his would-be father-in-law:
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed”
The hypocrisy of this cunning imposter is also evident from his impudent claim that he is a connoisseur of fine arts:
“I said Fra Pandolf by design”.
All these intricate details vivify the innate complexity of the Duke’s nature, his pride, deceit, vanity, presumption and greed, and thus become a psychological vehicle which all true dramatic monologues must aspire to be.
Finally, a dramatic monologue not merely concentrates on psycho-analysis but also reports the dramatic action of the speaker. In “My Last Duchess” the Duke’s parenthetical remark.
“Since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I”.
points to the actual action of unveiling the portrait of the Duchess painted on the wall. His proposal to the messenger towards the end of the poem:
“Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir”.
also points to the action he is involved in. All these make “My Last Duchess” a brilliant dramatic monologue.
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