“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning versus Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94:
Ironic Menace versus Sincerity
“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning takes the form of a dramatic monologue, in which a duke describes his first wife to an emissary arranging for the Duke’s second marriage. The Duke displays a portrait of his last wife proudly, noting how beautiful she is, but also jealously states that she was too liberal with her smiles and that he resents how freely she acted towards other people, as if she valued her husband’s noble name on the same level as a commoner. Gradually, the reader becomes aware of the fact that the Duke is a murderer, and is speaking of his wife as a kind of warning to the representative of the family of his future, next bride. The cool and civilized language of the Duke is an ironic contrast with his actual actions. The poem is clearly not Browning’s heartfelt outpouring of personal emotion along the lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets but rather is a calculated portrait of the psychology of a murderer.
Even the first line of the poem, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, /Looking as if she were alive,” seems chilling (1-2). The Duke notes he is the only one permitted to draw back the curtain, as if he prefers having the image of a woman he can control rather than an actual, living woman. “ Sir, ’twas not/Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek,” he notes, underlining his possessiveness, as if only a husband has the right to inspire joy in a woman (12-14). The fact that the Duke makes no apologies for his possessiveness underlines the extent to which he claims the right of command as part of his nine hundred-year-old name and is accustomed to having orders obeyed.
Browning skillfully conveys the injustice of the Duke by noting the specific, perceived crimes of the woman in question, which include smiling at the compliments of the portraitist Fra Pandolf, cherries brought to her by a lower-class man, or riding her white mule. The exaggerated disgust he feels for these actions, in sharp contrast with their innocence clearly shows him to be at fault. His excessive pride is seen in the fact that he even refuses to complain to his wife, which he sees as stooping. In general, the contrast of the married characters suggests that the dead duchess was unpretentious and kind, while her husband begrudged her every thought and emotion that was not about himself.
“My Last Duchess,” although it is about a beautiful woman’s portrait, a marriage, and strong emotions, sets a tone of menace and ironic contrast between the true realities of the relationship versus how the Duke perceives reality. It is very different from actual romantic poems such as Shakespeare’s sonnets. For example, in Sonnet 94, “They that have power to hurt and will do none,” Shakespeare as the author of the work discusses the fact he is in a similar plight to the Duke in the sense that he fears he loves someone who may not love…