How does Browning tell the story of “My Last Duchess” in the first thirteen lines? In the opening lines of “My Last Duchess”, Browning introduces his speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, who sets the stage to tell the story of his late wife to the Count’s emissary. As a dramatic monologue, Browning’s identity is dissolved into his character’s voice and persona; the first-person narration of the Duke dominates the perspective of the story; the emissary becomes a silent listener, whose presence is only known because he is addressed as “you” and “Sir” by the speaker throughout the poem.
The relationship between the speaker and the listener within the narrative thus sets up an analogous relationship between the poet, Browning, and his audience outside of the narrative. Like the emissary, we are silent; however, unlike him, as readers, we are made aware of the fact that the Duke is to be distinguished from the poet as a fictional creation, and that in turn, we are to distinguish ourselves from the listener’s silent presence; we are not the “you” to whom the narrative is being directed.
The implicit theatricality of the narrative is emphasised through Browning’s inclusion of the word, “FERRARA” before the poem begins. The script-like nature of the monologue removes Browning from his narration, and thus distances us from its reception; the actual story of the Duchess is located within the Duke’s inner narrative, and the story of the Duke’s external narrative is located within Browning’s poem. The dramatic irony of the story is held in tension by the fact that the Duke reveals more to us as readers than he knows to be telling his listener.
Though he is able to suspend the disbelief of his listener, as he directs the emissary’s eyes to the painting of the Duchess and asks him “please” to “sit and look at her”, he is ultimately unable to suspend our own; the self-reflexive nature of the poem, which is sustained in Browning’s heroic couplets, forces us to interpret the Duke’s story as a self-conscious performance rather than a truthful account of his late wife.
The Duke’s preface to the story behind the portrait of the Duchess is an attempt to hide the fact that he has murdered his late wife, and to seduce the emissary into his authoritative interpretation of her character as revealed in the painting. Though he flatters his inferior by speaking to him as a familiar “you” and “Sir”, his polite condescension does not “stoop” to the emissary’s level, but rather establishes who is in charge.
While he paints over his command to sit – “Will’t please you sit and look at her” – with flattery, he does not hesitate to remind his listener of the privilege he has to be shown the painting in the first place: “since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I”. Furthermore, he indicates that without “turn[ing]” to his presence, “Strangers like [the emissary]” will never understand the “depth and passion of its earnest glance”.
We never hear the listener ask to be told the story; while it can be implied that he has asked (“not the first/Are you to turn and ask thus”), his voice is excluded from the narrative, and the reader believes that the story will be told regardless of the emissary’s wishes. While the silent listener is drawn into the Duke’s possession of the poem, Browning’s versification of his character’s language allows the reader to discern the limitations of the first-person narrative and the insecurity behind the Duke’s insistence on domination.
Like the poem’s title, the first stress is on the word “my” of “my last Duchess”, and the fact that she is his “last” one, no longer “alive” and to be followed by his prospective wife is only suggested. The intricate syntax of the following two sentences, constantly interrupted by caesuras within the verses that flow inconsistently outside of the verse in enjambments, is very difficult to follow, especially because he keeps changing the subject of his speech from the painting, to Fra Pandolf, to the emissary, to other strangers, and back to himself.
The length of the sentences themselves is also inconsistent, the first verse being the only self-contained clause, indicating incoherence in the Duke’s seemingly-eloquent narrative. Browning’s verse not only establishes the Duke’s conversational tone, but also indicates the Duke’s attempt to obscure the truth, which remains as unclear and unstressed as is the fact that the Duchess is dead, even if she is “looking as if she were alive. What “stands” is not a human being (“she”), but an objectified “piece”, an “it” possessing nothing but an “earnest glance”. Furthermore, the Duke is not aware of the double entendres of his “design”, even if we know that like “Fra Pandolf’s hands”, he is working “busily” to sustain his authority. By calling her a “piece”, a term not without sexual innuendo, he feels that he has won over her, but her objectification into a painting has been his only means to possession.
It becomes apparent that the Duke’s interpretation of Fra Pandolf’s “piece” of art is not as important as our interpretation of Browning’s piece. Though Browning is more absent from the poem than the emissary, he has drawn the curtain on his portraiture of the Duke; we are asked to “read/…that pictured countenance” not without regard for the creator of the piece; unlike the Duke, we are called not to misinterpret but to reinterpret the truth behind the painting and bring to life the fiction of the Duke’s performance.