Just as the object of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is a portrait, the poem is painting another portrait; a portrait of the speaker. The portrait the poem paints of the speaker –at first glance- is that of a madman: an irrational brute who slew his wife in a fit of jealous rage. However, by looking closely at the speaker’s words, examining the form of the poem, as well as examining the historical context of the poem, we can begin to see how the murder of the Duchess was not conducted in an emotional rage, but rather was a rational decision based on societal expectations.
This is not to say that the Duke’s actions are necessarily justified. There are simply many ways to read a dramatic monologue beyond just the speaker’s thoughts and what seems obvious when the reader examines those thoughts. Of course, as a dramatic monologue, the main function of the poem itself is to paint a proverbial picture of the speaker; who they are and what motivates them. However, beyond that, when some historical and formal context is added to the poem, we can begin to understand how the poem might be read in different ways, and how -in the case of “My Last Duchess-” the Duke might be judged in different ways.
Before one can understand multiple interpretation of a dramatic monologue based on historical and formal context, it is important to first closely examine the concrete information that is given to the reader. When it comes to dramatic monologue, the concrete information is the initial portrait that the poem paints of the speaker by taking the reader into their world. The initial portrait we get of the speaker is that of an irrational and jealous man, as much of the poem discuses the Duchess’ flirtation with other men. For example “she had / Heart –how shall I say- too soon made glad,” (ll. 21-22) and “Or sir, she smiled, no doubt / Whene’er I passed her, but who passed without / Much the same smile? (ll. 43-45) When the speaker remarks “I gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together” (ll. 45-46), it implies that the “smiles” –or in other words- the flirtation, was the determining factor in choosing to silence her. This portrays the speaker as jealous and irrational; deciding to kill his wife just because she gave attention to other men. But perhaps there is another motivating factor in the speaker’s decision.
One section of the poem in particular deviates from portraying the speaker as simply jealous of his wife’s flirtation, and perhaps exposes another more rational side of the speaker. It is here that the murder of the Duchess becomes not simply based on jealousy but based on the Duke’s class and his responsibility to meet societal expectations. Up until now we have only heard the speaker’s thoughts and feelings, but a societal perspective injected into the poem when the speaker states:
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. (ll.31-34)