Power and Control in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Power is the ability of an individual or group to influence the behavior of others through manipulation, coercion, persuasion, or domination. It is the possession of authority over others and the degree of influence that an individual or individuals have amongst their peers and within society as a whole. Therefore, the possession of power allows for the imposition of one’s will in a given situation. Power is used by a person or group to limit or regulate the courses of action which are open to other individuals with or without their consent. It can be obtained through wealth, status, prestige, numbers, or organizational efficiency. The exercitation of power can be blunt or subtle, legal or illegal, justly or unjustly. However, the basis of one’s power is the capability of compelling obedience through the threat or use of force.
In Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”, power is used to demonstrate the arrogant, jealous, and controlling nature of the speaker, the Duke. The first two lines of the poem introduce the reader to the topic of the Duke’s speech, a painting of his late wife. The lines, “that’s my last Duchess painted on the wall/Looking as if she were still alive” (Browning 1-2), appear to be about his late wife on the surface but mention of the Duchess is secondary to the self-importance expressed by the Duke in his speech. Furthermore, the lines reveal that the Duchess was relatively insignificant to him. By stating that the painting of the late Duchess “looks as if she were still alive” (Browning 2), instead of noting that the painting is lifelike, the Duke appears to have only valued the Duchess for her physical experience.
The history of the painting reveals the egocentrism held by the Duke. As the Duke describes the history of the painting, he mentions the artist, Frà Pandolf, three times in lines 3, 6, and 16 of the poem. From the way the Duke mentions the artist’s name and seems to take more pride in the identity of the creator of the painting rather than the actual painting itself, it suggests that Frà Pandolf is a famous artist. Since the first mention of the name told the reader and audience who painted the work, the subsequent repeats of the name expresses the self-pride the Duke feels about hiring such a famous painter. Instead of replacing Frà Pandolf with the less descriptive terms of painter or artist, the Duke repeats the name as if bragging his wealth and the influence it gives him.
The Duke’s controlling nature is also revealed in the beginning of the poem with the painting of the late duchess. When the Duke states “since none puts by/ The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” (Browning 9-10) in parenthesis, he is boasting about the fact that he is the only one who has the power to display the painting. He controls who views the painting and holds mastery over the smile of his deceased wife. The statement is meant to emphasize his control. As the poem...