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The Price of Individuality

The poem ‘My Last Duchess,’ written by Robert Browning, and first published in 1842 tells the tale of a Duke, and his late Duchess. Written in 28 rhyming couplets, with dominance of the iambic pentameter, the poem reads more like a conversation because of the pauses in the middle of lines – caesura. The Duke is believed to be the Duke of Ferrara, a city in Northern Italy, Alfonso II, who at the age of 25 married the 14 year old daughter of the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, Lucretia de Medici. This places the setting of the poem in Italy, during the end of the Italian Renaissance.

The Duchess died mysteriously after about two years of marriage. Popular belief is that she had been poisoned by the jealous Duke himself. Written in dramatic monologue, the narrator addresses his guest, ‘an emissary of the Count of Tyrol, possibly Nikolaus Mardruz, the chief of the count’s entourage [1]. ’ In fact, Ferrara hints at his interest, the ‘fair daughter,’ believed to be Barbara of Austria, the count’s niece, whom he later married. ‘The interval between the two marriages dates the subject of the poem to sometime between 1561 (when Lucrezia died) and 1565 (the second marriage to Barbara) [1].

’ As he shows his guest around his palace and his collection of artworks, he draws a curtain to reveal the painting of his last duchess, describing her as a vivacious, bright young woman. But soon the poem takes a darker mysterious turn, indicating that the Duke had something to hide. As he reminisces about the duchess, he describes to his guest how it was not ‘Her husbands presence only’ that made her happy, and how she used to smile at other men. Her disgraceful behavior eventually led the Duke to give ‘orders and all smiles stopped together.

’ ‘The more he talks, the more his contempt and self-justifying anger show, and the more he endears the Duchess to us [3]. ’ Now her smiling picture hangs behind a curtain, which he alone may draw. The Duke and the emissary move on, and ‘Ferrara hints at his intentions by pointing out a second work of art, this time a sculpture, as he reaches the staircase. Neptune, the sea-god, is ‘Taming a sea-horse’, as Ferrara tamed his last Duchess [3]. ’ The reader is given just the resentful Duke’s version of the story, and is left to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

In fact, even with only the Duke’s account, soon, the reader realizes the horror of the duchess’ end. Robert Browning’s poem reflects a lot about society’s attitude towards women in general, and more specifically in the setting of the poem. The Duchess described in the poem appears to be a light-hearted, lively woman. The Duke though, loathed her cheerful, overfriendly nature. He despised her smiling at anyone apart from him, and soon grew jealous of her attractive personality, and ordered her to be put to death.

A very important aspect that the poem highlights is that of the power of control men had over women. And if they did not have it, it was the one thing they wanted. The Duke wanted complete control and command over his wife. He saw her as flirtatious and immoral, possibly even unfaithful. Her smiling at other men might indicate affairs, but Browing here keeps the text unclear. In fact, from the account of the fanatical Duke, it is more likely that all the immoral and disgraceful behavior was just in his mind.

Set in the Italian Renaissance, it is easy to discern this was a time of great change and revolution in Europe. In fact, this was the transition between ‘medieval’ and modern Europe. Most change occurred in the literary and cultural circles. ‘Artists were redefining their views towards nature and the human form, and were experimenting will all sorts of new mediums [2]. ’ Browning’s poem, though written at the end of the Renaissance reflects major flaws in the mind-sets of people, even after such drastic and progressive change. Personality and individuality, especially in women was not tolerated.

The Duchess’ vibrant and spirited nature made the Duke envious; he felt her did not have the skill to lesson her, and that she would resist to such lessoning, making excuses, and he saw such lessoning as ‘stooping,’ so instead, he ordered her to be killed. Browning also highlights how Duke, like other men treated women like possessions. The Duke had great pride in his nine-hundred-years-old name, which, he felt the Duchess did not appreciate. In fact, if given more thought, it is easy to tell that the Duchess was not amazed or impressed with the Duke’s family or wealth, which was simply handed down to him by his forefathers.

Menci’s own family was wealthy. But apart from the historical context, Browning portrays a typical patriarchal society where individuals and their credibility were judged by family name and wealth, rather than ability and aptitude. Many scholars also agree that since the Renaissance was a period of aesthetic and cultural development, there was also more exploration on subjects like the female psyche and sexuality. In fact, many believe that it was the duchess’ natural sexuality and nature that the Duke labeled disgraceful.

Even society overall generalized women into fixed categories as daughters, wives or mothers, not understanding them as individuals. Chauvinistic men like the Duke exercised absolute power, and saw even the merest of contraventions are wrongdoings. The ravings of the Duke also suggest, as stated earlier, that most of the wrongdoings were just figments of his imagination. Many of those in the literary circles in the Victorian era, like Browning himself, and his contemporaries raised the question of the society’s attitude towards women.

Men like Duke wanted fixed female sexuality, and a fixed personality. The Duke wanted his duchess to smile only at him. Her being friendly or smiling at other men incensed him tremendously. This also reveals the underlying insecurity in men of that time. Though most appeared ostensibly in control, and in power, deep inside were cowards. The Dukes chilling demeanor itself is evident of how he exercised his control – through force. Also, it is important to note that Browning shows the Duke negotiating his next marriage, with yet another young wealthy girl.

For the Duke, and most others in that era, women were mere objects. In fact, it took years for society to accept them as individuals with their own rights.

Works Cited: 1. Tenebris. Poetry analysis: My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning. Helium. (http://www. helium. com/items/323163-poetry-analysis-my-last-duchess-by-robert-browning) 2. What is the Italian Renaissance. Essortment. (http://www. essortment. com/all/whatistheit_rgjm. htm) 3. Lancashire, Ian. My Last Duchess. Representative Poetry Online. 2002, September 9. (http://rpo. library. utoronto. ca/poem/288. html)

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