My Last Duchess: A Fascinating Dramatic Monologue Based Upon Real People
The Duke at worst is inferring that she was unfaithful; at best, he was clearly displeased with not being treated in a more important manner. He does seem to cook up an excuse for himself before he reveals how the matter was dealt with. He tells the emissary that even if you chose to confront the person who is displeasing you so, this would involve some indignity – ‘some stooping’ as he puts it, and he says that he chooses ‘never to stoop’. He intimates that when the Duchess’ frivolous behavior continued to grow, he ‘gave commands’ and ‘then all smiles stopped together’. Yes, saints preserve us, that does imply that he had her murdered!
Then, in a rather cold-blooded and nonchalant manner, he turns the talk to the marriage that is being arranged. The Duke says that he thinks the Count will not reject any amount in terms of dowry that he might seek. At the same time, he avers that the Count’s ‘fair daughter’s self, as I avowed at starting, is my object’ – a statement that probably wouldn’t seem so ominous if it hadn’t been made after his prior discourse.
As he guides the emissary downstairs to meet the company, he casually points out another rare objet d’art that he possesses: “Neptune Taming a Seahorse”. This is another symbol of the Duke’s controlling nature and Neptune is meant to symbolize him. The Duke mentions that ‘Claus of Innsbruck’ cast the piece in bronze for him. This is thought to be an artifice to establish more rapport with the emissary. It is known that the emissary who saw the Duke concerning his second marriage to Barbara of Austria was Nikolaus of Innsbruck.
While one may hope that the emissary will be horrified and return a negative report, let us not forget that even noble women were treated like chattel during this time. Many daughters of noble families were simply traded into marriage for advantageous political reasons. These young women were trained to believe this was their duty. Alfonso II did marry Barbara of Austria in 1565, the year she was 26, and the marriage lasted until her death from tuberculosis 7 years later. In 1579, in his mid-40s, Alfonso then married a 15-year-old niece of Barbara ‘s, Margherita Gonzaga. She outlived him by 21 years and never remarried.
Some feel that the Duchess was merely a naive young girl while others go with the unfaithful angle. Browning himself suggested if the real Alfonso didn’t actually have Lucrezia murdered, he sent her away to a convent. Of course, there is also the possibility that Lucrezia died of a sudden illness.
On the one hand, there was some real violence in the lives of Lucrezia’s siblings. Her older sister, Isabella, was murdered by her husband. A younger brother, Pietro, murdered his wife. Rumors concerning poison certainly were commonplace enough in those times. It was rumored that another older brother, Francesco, and his wife, were both poisoned. They died on the same day. Lucrezia’s mother and two other brothers were also rumored to have been poisoned although it was eventually proven that they died of malarial fever.
On the other hand, we can say that if Lucrezia was poisoned, she surely must have rolled over in her grave when her youngest sister, Virginia, married Alfonso’s cousin and heir, Caesare d’Este.
“My Last Duchess” is an exceptionally skillful psychological portrait of a powerful sociopath, a brilliant product of Robert Browning’s perception of how much value a man like Alfonso D’Este put on his lofty position.