Discuss the characteristics of Dramatic Monologue with reference to Browning’s “My Last Duchess”

Browning wrote poetry with a purpose – to explore the heart and mind of his characters, by making them talk in a particular situation about a certain incident, idea or experience. In his dramatic monologues, he looks at life from different perspectives. The dramatic monologist is aware of the relativity, the arbitrariness of a single way of life or way of looking at the world – so in his monologues Browning presents the “the inexhaustible multitudes of various lives which have been lived or can be lived.” In the following paragraphs, an analysis of the techniques applied by Browning in his dramatic monologues with special reference to “My Last Duchess” shall be dealt with.

A dramatic monologue usually includes all or a few of the following elements: a fiction speaker and audience, a symbolic setting, Talismanic props, dramatic gestures, an emphasis on speaker’s subjectivity, a focus on dramatics, problematics of irony or non-irony and involved reader’s role playing. Browning presents all these ingredients in the most appealing and fascinating platter, “My Last Duchess” being his all time masterpiece when it came to dramatic monologues.

A tension between sympathy and judgement, a power play between amazement and a sense of morality are among the striking features of dramatic monologue. M.W. MacCallum had observed in this regard, “But in every instance…the object (of the dramatic monologue) is to give facts from within. A certain dramatic understanding of the person speaking, which implies a certain dramatic sympathy with him, is not only essential, but the final cause of the whole species.” In ‘My Last Duchess’, the duke’s egregious villainy makes especially apparent the split between moral judgement and our actual feeling for him. The poem carries to the limit an effect peculiarly the genius of the dramatic monologue i.e. the effect created by the tension between sympathy and moral judgement. Browning delighted in making a case for the apparently immoral position, and the dramatic monologue, since it requires sympathy for the speaker as a condition of reading the poem, is an excellent vehicle for the ‘impossible’ case. The combination of villain and aesthete in the Duke creates an especially strong tension, and Browning exploits the combination to the fullest. The utter outrageousness of the Duke makes condemnation the least interesting response, certainly not the response that can account for the poem’s success. What interests us more than the Duke’s wickedness is his immense attractiveness. His conviction of matchless superiority, his intelligence and bland amorality, his poise, his taste for art, his manners – high handed aristocratic manners that break the ordinary rules and assert the Duke’s superiority when he is being most solicitous of the envoy, waiving their difference of rank; these qualities overwhelm the envoy, causing him apparently to suspend judgement of the Duke, for he raises no demur. The reader is no less overwhelmed. We suspend moral judgement because we prefer to participate in the duke’s power and freedom, in his hard core of character fiercely loyal to itself. Moral judgement, as Robert Langbaum argues, is in fact important as the thing to be suspended, as a measure of the price we pay for the privilege of appreciating to the fullest this extraordinary man

It is because the Duke determines the arrangement and relative subordination of the parts that the poem means what it does. The duchess goodness shines through the Duke’s utterance, he makes no attempt to conceal it, so preoccupied is he with his own standard of judgement and so oblivious of the world’s. Thus the duchess’s case is subordinated to the Duke’s, the novelty and complexity of which engages our attention. We are busy trying to understand the man who can combine the connoisseur’s pride in the lady’s beauty with a pride that caused him to murder the lady rather than tell her in what way she displeased him, for in that ‘would be some stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop.’ The duke’s paradoxical nature is fully revealed when, having boasted how at his command the Duchess’s life was extinguished, he turns back to the portrait to admire of all things its life-likeness, ‘There she stands/ As if alive’. This occurs ten lines from the end, and we might suppose that we have by now taken the duke’s measure. But the next ten lines produce a series of shocks that outstrip each time our understanding of the Duke, and keep us panting after revelation with no opportunity to consolidate our impression of him for moral judgement. For it is at this point that we learn to whom he has been talking, and he goes on to talk about dowry, even allowing himself to murmur the hypocritical assurance that the new bride herself and not the dowry is of course his object. Here, one side of the duke’s nature is stretched as far as it can go; the dazzling figure threatens to decline into paltriness admitting moral judgement, when Browning retrieves it with two brilliant strokes. First, there is the lordly waiving of rank’s privilege as the duke and the envoy are about to proceed downstairs, and then there is a perfect all-revealing gesture of the last two and half lines when the Duke stops to show off yet another object in his collection. The lines bring all the parts of the poem into final combination with just the relative values that constitute the poem’s meaning. The nobleman does not hurry on his way to business, the connoisseur cannot resist showing off yet another precious object, the possessive egoist counts up his possessions, even as he moves towards the acquirement of a new possession, a well dowered bride and most important, the last duchess is seen in final perspective. She takes her place in one of a line of objects in an art collection; her sad story becomes the cicerone’s anecdote lending piquancy to the portrait. The duke has taken from her what he wants, her beauty and thrown the life away and we watch in awe as he proceeds to take what he wants from the envoy and by implication form the new duchess. Such a will undeflected by ordinary compunctions, calls into question and lingers as the poem’s haunting after note: the Duke’s sanity.

The Duke grows to his full stature because we allow him to have is way with us; we sub-ordinate all other considerations to the business of understanding him. To take the full measure of the duke’s distinction, we must be less concerned to condemn than to appreciate the triumphant transition by which he ignores clean out of existence any judgement of his story that the envoy might have presumed to invent. By the exquisite timing the duke’s delay over Neptune, he tries once more the envoy’s already sorely tried patience, and as he teases the reader too by delaying for a lordly whim, the poem’s conclusion. This willingness of the reader to understand the duke, even to sympathize with him as a necessary condition of reading the poem, is the key to the poem’s form.

Moreover, the Italian Renaissance setting of “My last Duchess” helps to suspend moral judgement of the duke, since we partly at least take a historical view; we accept the combination of taste and villainy with taste and manners as a phenomenon of the Renaissance and the old aristocratic order in general. We cannot, however, entirely, historicize our moral judgement in this poem, because the duke’s crime is too egregious to support historical generalization. More important therefore, for the suspension of moral judgement is our psychologising attitude – our willingness to take up the duke’s view of events purely for the sake of understanding him, the more outrageous his view the more illuminating for us the psychological revelation.

It is thus, clear that arguments cannot make the case in a Dramatic Monologue but only passion, power, strength of will and intellect, just those existential virtues which are independent of logical and moral correctness and are therefore, best made out through sympathy and when clearly separated from, even opposed to, the other virtues. Browning’s contemporaries accuse him of ‘perversity’ as they found it necessary to sympathize with his reprehensible characters. But Browning’s perversity is intellectual and moral in the sense that most of his characters have taken up positions through a perfectly normal act of will.

Browning’s monologues plunge us into a world in which no words are trustworthy. In Browning’s dramatic monologues the speaker is often a liar. Even where the word liar might seem too strong, the speaker is often attempting to use his words to alter radically his listener’ perception of and attitude towards certain things, most notably the speaker himself. The speaker hopes that the world presented by his words will be taken as real, just as the liar wants his words to be taken as “true”. The success of the speaker in doing so is however limited. The monologues, while allowing their speakers a certain amount of control over language and its shaping of a world that suits the speaker’s purposes, almost always contain some principle by which the speaker’s control can be “molested”, his altering of facts for his own ends detected. Mastery over language and the transformation of life into art afford Browning’s speakers a stay against the chaos of the world that acts independently of individual desire.

The typical speaker of a Browning monologue is aggressive, often threatening, nearly always superior intellectually or socially to the auditor, a typically eloquent rhetorician who has complete control over what he speaks. Yet, such absolute control puts the listener on guard. The Duke’s subtlety makes the listener and the reader look for hidden motives and purposes. The Duke’s great care about what he says suggests that there is something behind the speech that he is determined not to reveal. And the assumption is that what is hidden is hidden for a reason. The Duke’s care with words, calling for an equal attention to those words on the listener’s part, places a new stress on interpretation. Language must be examined and studied to uncover the meaning it carries. Browning’s obsession with language’s function as the medium of interaction with men links him to the Victorian novelists, a world independent of the speaker is created in the process in which his words are interpreted by others, often in ways he never intended. The confrontation between selves implied in such a process is never far from the surface in a dramatic monologue. The auditor is a threat because he might break through the words offered by the duke to an interpretation that locates the duke’s attitudes and actions within an entirely different context. The duke’s monologue creates a world, like the lie in which everything is ordered completely in relation to the sensibilities and desires of the speaker. But the listener might not accept the offered world as valid. Browning’s speakers hence manifest a veiled hostility towards their listeners. While the Duke tries to close in on one interpretation of the Duchess’s ‘spot of joy’, justifying his annihilation of her, his language contains within it entirely contrary suggestion, which the listener or reader may uncover. The poem, therefore, has a metapoetic quality to it. The main device it uses to address its own status as an interpretative form is irony. And irony is the key trope of internal differentiation. Irony involves distancing language from itself. Thus, reading the monologue often means reading the language of the poem against itself – turning its rhetoric inside out to glimpse what the speaker may, unconsciously or not, be trying to conceal from view. Browning works to undermine his speaker’s control over the interpretation of his words, and this undermining function is a crucial element in establishing the reader’s relation with Browning’s own art.

The attempt to evade the reality of the other as an active agent is an interesting feature that is seen throughout the monologue. The duchess’s vitality, that ‘spot of joy’ on her cheek that offends the duke so much when she is alive, makes her portrait a striking one. The duke can enjoy the blush when it exists within his control. The static thing, the work of art can be controlled in way, the living person cannot be. The logic of dehumanization is ultimately, the logic of murder. The other who cannot be manipulated must be murdered or else the other will destroy the world the speaker has constructed. The only way to keep reality within one’s control, to prevent its creation by an intersubjective process that transcends the self, is to be alone in the world or to surround oneself with completely passive others. But the speaker even while viewing the other as a threat, needs the other. The speaker’s constructed world lacks substance if others are not witnesses to it. A total escape from social reality is unsatisfying. Browning’s speakers want a world that is entirely self-made but also peopled. The murdered duchess remains in the duke’s world as a portrait, a semblance of another who shares his world with him. But we assume that the satisfaction offered by these inanimate objects cannot be long-lasting. We learn of the last duchess and her fate during the duke’s search for a new duchess, a new witness to his world. The duke needs a living witness to his world, even while fearing one, and his monologue is aimed at protecting himself beforehand from too much vitality in that witness. The poem’s auditor, the envoy is also a witness to the duke’s world, one whom the duke treats most carefully. The self’s lack of power, its inability to create reality entirely on its own, is obliquely acknowledged in this fear of the other.

‘My Last Duchess’ thus, revolves around the attempt to control the other and reality itself by transforming life into art. Again and again in Browning’s poems, art and life are presented as distinct, with art seen as a wilful human construction in contrast to a reality that transcends individual control.  Reality proves threatening because contact with it might require altering and abandoning the constructions of imagination.

Interestingly, the ironic structure of the monologue is built primarily on a strict notion of over-determination, but opens out to a more mystical acknowledgement of the indeterminacy. Browning directs us as readers towards uncovering a finite set of causes that determine the speaker’s words and actions. The assumption is that the speaker himself can never be in control of or aware of all these causes, and that the listener or reader will at times, recognize causes the speaker cannot or does not wish to acknowledge. The irony here is close to dramatic irony: the audience (reader) enjoys a position of superior knowledge relative to the actor (speaker). While the speaker is not entirely in control of the meaning of his actions and utterances, there is a true meaning to those actions, a meaning that is accessible to another. Eg. Various reasons of love are given by the duke for killing the duchess, but an explanation of that love as a response to the threat of the other can only be supplied by the reader.

However, its not just dramatic irony, Browning’s Duke is also seen as a theatrical producer, as established by M.David Shaw. The duke is staging a show for the envoy by drawing and closing curtains and speaking rhetorically. George Monteiro remarked, “Virtually a libretto, the duke’s monologue sustains a central metaphor of drama and performance.” He begins his play with a curtain and sees himself in dramatic light. His gestures convey an involvement in a drama of social pretension, of ceremonious posturing, play acting and verbal artifice.

Another essential element of Browning’s dramatic monologue is the importance of the auditor. Unlike the speaker, the auditor, cannot help but hear, as if it were, by generic definition, absolutely silent, a passive receptor of a verbal tour de force that leaves him no opportunity for response — indeed, that often actively discourages him from doing so. Far from being a silence of consensus, the auditor’s is often a silence of intimidation. However, recent linguistic theories, viewed in terms of communicative acts, represented or otherwise, have deemed the silent listener as absolutely crucial, the dramatic situation in itself is obviously created by the presence of the other and he is necessary for the delineation of the speaker’s self-portrait. Silence is clearly not mere absence of speech but is itself heavy with communicative value. As Wagner-Lawlor observes, “there is communication structured through silence just as through speech”. The pragmatic ambiguity of second-person silence in monologues highlights the tension between consensus and resistance. The silence of the auditor, allows the reader sufficient freedom to make his own interpretations and in the process he not only undermines the authoritarian voice of the speaker but also becomes integrally involved in the dialogue.

The poem takes one of the central pre-occupations of romantic aesthetics to their potentially most devastating ends. If Romanticism redefined the perception of the world through the active projection of the individual will – so that the subject creates the object through say the faculty of the imagination – then it may well follow that the subject is in jeopardy of hallucinating reality. Overemphasis on the self can as we see here, lead to annihilation of the other, as is seen in case of the Duke ending the Duchess’s life. Thus, in his dramatic monologues, Browning explores the ultimate limits of execution of individual will and independence of action.

In his essay on “Sympathy versus Judgement”, Langbaum argues that the duke reveals his identity accidently. However, Rader observes that “the Duke reveals himself with deliberate calculation, for a specific purpose.” Where Langbaum sees the Duke’s motives exposed by chance, Rader considers them wholly purposeful. Why, then, has the duke’s speech led to such entirely opposing conclusions. It is here the Tucker’s criticism comes in. He helpfully sifts the debate from the rights and wrongs of the duke’s empirical character on to issues of language and representation. Although critics recognize the disparity between statement and meaning, it is what is betrayed that keeps them in dispute. Tucker performs a reconciliation act here; he begins by noting the internal division within the duke’s speech. On one hand, they express modesty, attempting to control the impression made upon the envoy. On the other, given their recurrence, they suggest the Duke’s discomfort or even paranoia. The Duke seems to be wrestling with a language whose power to signify is troublingly greater than his own. Tucker is able to tease out the Duke’s considerable discursive unease. The Duke begins to cast doubt on the values he eposes, almost in spite of himself/ As he discloses more about his ‘last Duchess’ (sounding chilling as though she was one of a series), her portrait lovingly executed by Fra Pandolf, and her sudden death, the wider gap opens between intention and meaning.“My Last Duchess”, draws attention to a disjunction between verbal ‘skill’ and intent or ‘will’. It concentrates on exposing competing interpretations between the Duchess’s will and his skill to represent his intentions and its skill in doing the same. His rhetorical discomfiture deepens considerably when he reveals himself unable to decode the intentions of others. All the characters in the short history he adumbrates himself, the Duchess and Fra Pandolf – have desires and demands that he chooses to regard in a damagingly restrictive manner.

In the end, it can be said that Browning uses the familiar techniques and requirements of a dramatic monologue in the most peculiar and exploratory fashion to yield an unfamiliar and unheard of art product that was to glorify his legacy for generations to come.

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9 Responses to “Dramatic Monolugue: Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’”

  1. asdf Says:

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  2. Debabrata Says:

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  3. Deni B Says:

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  4. Anna Says:

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  5. Madhupriya Says:

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