My Last Duchess: A Fascinating Dramatic Monologue Based Upon Real People

Robert Browning published “My Last Duchess” in 1842 in a volume of poetry called “Dramatic Lyrics”. While the work is held in high regard nowadays, at this time in Browning’s life, he was already suffering from bad reviews of a few earlier works and the volume was not very popular. The monologue, spoken by ‘Ferrara’, begins with the line: “That’s my last duchess, painted on the wall”. That’s how we know right off the bat that the speaker is a Duke. The next line: ‘looking as if she were alive’ tells you that she’s not.

If you do not know this Robert Browning poem, you might want to go and listen to it before reading the rest of this article, or risk the article influencing your impression of the poem when you do read it.

The Italian family of Este, Lords of Ferrara, were created Dukes of Modena and Reggio, and also became Dukes of Ferrara in 1471. In 1597, they lost the succession of Ferrara itself to the Papal States, when the last Duke, Alfonso II, died with no heir. Alfonso did name his cousin Caesare as his heir, but Ferrara was lost to the Papal States all the same. Caesare was still the Duke of Modena and Reggio. There were 5 dukes of Ferrara, but only Alfonso II had a wife who was rumored to have been poisoned, and otherwise fits the profile of Robert Browning’s poem.

Alfonso d’Este was born on November 22, 1533, almost 3 centuries before Robert Browning. He was the oldest son of Ercole II d’Este, whose mother was Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Thus, Alfonso was a Pope’s great-grandson.

Alfonso’s mother was Renée, a princess of France. Her parents were King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. Alfonso never met his maternal grandparents since they both died when his own mother was but a young child. His grandmother predeceased his grandfather by a year, and then the 52-year-old Louis married 18-year-old Mary Tudor, King Henry VIII’s sister. Three months after this marriage, the French King died. During her childhood, a companion of Alfonso’s mother was the young Ann Boleyn. These connections to England may have fascinated Robert Browning.

When Ercole II died in 1559, Alfonso became Duke. He was married three times. Robert Browning’s poem concerns the first woman who married Alfonso in 1560. OK, she was only a teenager, but Renaissance teenagers in noble families cannot be compared to our idea of teenagers. Let’s look at her pedigree:

Lucrezia de Medici was a daughter of Cosimo de Medici, who came to power when he was 17 years old. The strong-willed and ambitious Cosimo was recognized as head of the Florentine state in June of 1537 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Lucrezia’s mother was Eleonora di Toledo, the daughter of Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples. Cosimo and Eleonora had 13 children, who survived infancy. Lucrezia was their 5th child, and 3rd girl. She was betrothed to Alfonso D’Este in 1558 with a dowry of 200,000 scudi.

Lucrezia was 16 old when she married the 27 year old Duke. She died one year later and the poisoning rumors began. Several years later, in 1565 to be precise, Alfonso was married again to Barbara of Austria, 8th daughter of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary. She was also the niece of the Count of Tyrol.

Browning presents his “My Last Duchess” poem in the form of a dramatic monologue. This form serves to reveal information not only about the speaker’s topic, but reveals the speaker’s personality and psyche as well. Whether the speaker does this intentionally or not is in the judgment of the reader or listener. The poem reveals the duke to be a haughty, selfish and possessive man who treats people, even his wife, as if they were objects.

The purpose of the poem’s meeting is to discuss arrangements for the Duke’s next marriage, although this is not revealed until later on in the poem. In the beginning of the poem, the Duke starts out talking about the painting on the wall of the deceased Duchess. The painting is a fresco, artwork painted directly on a plaster wall in watercolors. It is also known that the real Alfonso was a patron of the arts and sciences. Robert Browning had traveled in Italy prior to composing this poem and perhaps he even saw some of the artwork that Alfonso II sponsored. The fresco of the Duchess in the poem is covered by a curtain that no one can pull back except the Duke. The Duke makes a point of this: ‘none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I’ and this lets you know he is a controlling fellow.

The Duke proceeds to draw what he believes is a rather unflattering portrait of his last Duchess in life. Perhaps he is trying to communicate to the emissary what he expects of his next wife. To the reader, he succeeds instead in showing himself to be cruel, demanding and inflexible. The Duchess’ main fault seems to be that she had no powers of discernment. He emphasizes her beautiful smile and elaborates on her custom of bestowing her smile too freely. The Duchess 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.