When I was a schoolboy, Robert Brownings “My Last Duchess” as a standard item in the English curriculum. It had many features calculated to excite the minds of the young, foremost among them a ruthless, egotistical tyrant of such power and vanity that he could openly admit to having ordered the execution of his own wife for the “crime” of being too pleasant to others. Critics have not been of one mind about the meaning of the poem, or even the psychology of its ducal speaker. Robert Langbaum, who regards himself as something of an authority on the poem, writes, “It is because the dukes motive for telling the story is inadequate, and because the situation is never resolved in that the utterance is not quite directed to the auditor and does not accomplish anything, that we look for a resolution in the dukes life outside the poem” [my italics, indicating where I think Langbaum mistaken]. William Harmon declares, “The duke is dignified and cagey but not quite cagey enough. Some inner compulsion, probably an overwhelming sense of guilt, has compelled him to return to the scene and situation of his crime and to confess.” This seems to me equally mistaken.
Brownings duke is based on Alfonso dEste, duke of Ferrara, whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances only three years after her marriage. Like historical novelists of our day, Browning allowed himself some latitude in creating his psychological portrait. But he was a keen student of history, and he would have known all about the moral vagaries of Italian Renaissance princes, a topic Shakespeare himself was acquainted with. Regarding the dEste family, Jacob Burkhardt writes:
Within the palace frightful deeds were perpetrated; a princess was beheaded (1425) for alleged adultery with a stepson; legitimate and illegitimate children fled from the court, and even abroad their lives were threatened by assassins sent in pursuit of them (1471). Plots from without were incessant; the bastard of a bastard tried to wrest the crown from the lawful heir, Hercules I; this latter is said afterwards (1493) to have poisoned his wife on discovering that she, at the instigation of her brother, Ferrente of Naples, was going to poison him.
Confident, audacious, vain, Brownings duke knows just what hes up to, and has calculated to a nicety the effect his words will have on the envoy who has come to treat with him about a second marriage, and is acting as the agent of the count of Tyrol, whose court is at Innsbruck, Austria. Underneath the dukes connoisseurship, civility, and boastfulness, two stipulations are meant to be made crystal clear to the family of the potential bride: (1) The duke is a man of expensive tastes who will expect a dowry commensurate with the distinction of his noble family, and (2) he will also expect nothing but absolute submission and obedience from anyone he deigns to marry. This is the “motive” for his elaborate discourse. He feels no more guilt than Shakespeares Antonio in The Tempest, who plots the murder of his brother, Prospero. The dukes conscience is as untroubled as Machiavelli tells us a princes ought to be. Doubtless this is chilling, even monstrous; yet there have been such men. That such brutal considerations should present themselves openly during the negotiations preliminary to a marriage contract should not astonish us when we recall that marriage among the nobility was largely a mercenary and dynastic matter, in which love played little if any role.
Richard Howard, a poet and professor of English at Columbia University,