Course Hero. "My Last Duchess Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Feb. 2018. Web. 26 Sep. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/My-Last-Duchess/>.
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(Course Hero, 2018)
Course Hero. "My Last Duchess Study Guide." February 13, 2018. Accessed September 26, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/My-Last-Duchess/.
Course Hero, "My Last Duchess Study Guide," February 13, 2018, accessed September 26, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/My-Last-Duchess/.
In the 1842 publication of "My Last Duchess," the word Ferrara was not present. It was added in 1849. The poem is loosely based on the historical figure of Duke Alfonso II d'Este (1533–97), an Italian duke who married a young girl, Lucrezia de' Medici, in 1558. At the time of their marriage, the duke was age 25, and Lucrezia was 14.
Lucrezia was only 17 when she died in 1561. There were suspicions surrounding her death—some claimed she had been poisoned, but this was never proven.
In 1565 the duke married Barbara, the daughter of Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol. Barbara died in 1572, and the duke's third marriage was to Margherita Gonzaga in 1579.
The dramatic monologue—a poetic form associated primarily with Browning—is a poem in which the speaker is the true focus of the poem. By way of his or her speech, the speaker of the poem reveals both personality and secrets to at least one silent witness. The characters in these poems are supposed to be talking about a subject, but the reader primarily learns about the speaker's personality and psychology.
To better understand why this particular form of poetry is a natural fit for Browning, the reader might recall Browning was also a playwright. Although he was unsuccessful, playwriting influenced his writing. The tradition of monologues in theater is longstanding. What Browning has done here is adapt the monologue form to poetry.
One example of this adaptation is evident in Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868–69). Here he takes the short monologue form and lends it to multiple characters who collectively reveal the story of a murder. Much like English novelist Wilkie Collins had done in The Moonstone (1868), Browning uses his dramatic monologue to explore a mystery. Both The Ring and the Book and The Moonstone were released around the same time, and both utilize the idea of limited narrative in early examples of detective fiction. Collins's novel is largely considered to be the first novel-length detective fiction. However, it is contemporary with The Ring and the Book, which does the same thing, but in a series of dramatic monologues rather than in prose. Both of these detective-style stories were published after the short stories of American writer Edgar Allan Poe, including "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) and "The Purloined Letter" (1845). The reader will recall "My Last Duchess" was one of the poems included in Dramatic Lyrics (1842).
The death of women at the hands of men appears in three of Browning's most popular dramatic monologues: "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," and The Ring and the Book. The two poems and the book center on questions of fidelity and control of women by their romantic partners.
Like "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover" is told by a man who kills his beloved to control her. Porphyria is a married woman from a higher social class than her lover. One rainy night Porphyria comes to visit him. She lights a fire in the grate, sets aside her cloak and gloves, and loosens her hair. When her lover (the speaker) appears, she bares her shoulder and pulls him near, offering him words of love. In this moment the speaker "knew" that "Porphyria worshipped [him]." He considers his response, and decides murder is the solution to preserve the perfect moment: "I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her." After killing her, he sits with her corpse "all night long."
These two poems are in the same collection, and both are spoken by men who choose to commit murder to control their romantic partners.
Browning's most famous text—the one that garnered him fame and success in his lifetime—is The Ring and the Book. This book-length collection of 12 dramatic monologues was inspired by the 1698 triple-murder case in Italy. The historic case is of a middle-aged Italian nobleman, Guido Franceschini who married a young girl, Francesca Pompilia. Guido Franceschini misrepresented himself as wealthy. Francesca was not actually the daughter of the couple (Pietro and Violante Comparini) who had raised her, but the child of a prostitute. They had taken her as their child because they needed a child to gain an inheritance. Over the course of the suits and countersuits, Francesca Pompilia flees her husband with a young man, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. She is captured and sent to a nunnery, but she is discovered to be pregnant and is sent to live with the Comparinis. Caponsacchi is tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Franceschini and four men go to the Comparini home and murder his wife, as well as Pietro and Violante Comparini.
The trial for the murder centered on the question of whether a man could kill an adulterous wife for the sake of his own honor. The debate lasted a month after the trial, but Guido Franceschini was found guilty. He and his accomplices were executed.
Browning's The Ring and the Book tells this story in 12 dramatic monologues that contradict each other at times.