This poem is loosely based on historical events involving Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, who lived in the 16th century. The Duke is the speaker of the poem. He tells us he is entertaining a representative who has come to settle the widowed Duke's marriage to the daughter of another powerful family. As he shows the visitor through his palace, he stops before a portrait of the late Duchess. She is apparently a young and lovely girl. The Duke begins recalling about the portrait sessions, then about the Duchess herself. His musings give way to a criticism on her disgraceful behavior. He claims she flirted with everyone and did not appreciate his "gift of a nine-hundred-years- old name."
As his monologue continues, the reader realizes with ever-more chilling certainty that the Duke in fact caused the Duchess's early demise. When her behavior rose, he: "gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together."
Having made this revelation, the Duke returns to the business at hand. He goes on to arrange for another marriage, with another young girl.
Browning has more in mind than simply creating a colorful character and placing him in a picturesque historical scene. Rather, the specific historical setting of the poem tells of much significance. The Italian Renaissance held a particular fascination for Browning for it represented the flowering of the aesthetic and the human alongside. It also reflects the religious and the moral thoughts. Thus the temporal setting allows Browning to explore sex, violence, and aesthetics together. The Duke's ravings suggest that most of the supposed lapses took place only in his mind.
A poem like "My Last Duchess" calculatedly engages its readers on a...