Dr. Amy Murphy
14 February 2000
The Duke of Ferrara: Characterization and Depiction
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “officious” during the 19th century as “eager to please; attentive, obliging.” In the dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, this word describes a servant that is volunteering his service unnecessarily to the Duke of Ferrara’s wife. Although the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, is speaking of this servant in a negative manner, he wishes his wife to be officious towards him; the Duke of Ferrara wishes to have total control. So, the Duke is both discouraging and discouraging officiousness, depending on whom it is directed. The Duke of Ferrara emphasizes his need for power and control over his wife, and demonstrates obvious signs of being a “control freak,” whether it be purposefully or inadvertently, through the style of the dialogue, composition of the dialogue, and the treatment of the messenger that emphasizes the role of the listener.
The poem gains the reader’s interest from the very beginning with this line: “That is my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive” (ll. 1-2). The element that creates the interest is the use of the phrase “as if.” The introductory lines are a fancy way to say that the woman in the portrait is dead, but the tone is mysterious and creates curiosity, which encourages the reader to continue. The poem also flows smoothly from one line to the next, making the Duke appear to be an exceptionally fluent and articulate speaker. This describes the character of the Duke because he is obsessed with being in control. The Duke reveals his manipulative characteristics through the poem.
The dialogue is composed of several terms and phrases that describe the Duke’s personality, and his views about officiousness. For example, “E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose never to stoop” (ll. 42-43). This short locution shows the pomposity and stubbornness of the Duke of Ferrara. He is obviously overly confident, and he believes his Duchess should worship his every move. The Duchess did not treat the Duke with the officiousness that he wished, and, consequently, he “gave commands; then all smiles stopped together,” meaning that he ordered her to be killed (ll. 45-46). This action is justified in the Duke’s mind because he could not control her actions, and now his Duchess painted in a portrait covered with a curtain, which is only drawn by the Duke. Therefore, the control which was absent in their mortal relationship is now presented by the Duke when he draws the curtain revealing the Duchess.
The listener in the poem plays an important role. The messenger is meeting with the Duke in order to arrange his next marriage, which may be to the messenger’s master’s daughter. The Duke makes a specific effort to make the count feel good about himself, and at the same time, the Duke is feigning modesty. “E’en you had skill in speech- (which I have not) -to make you will quite clear to such a one” (ll. 35-37). In this excerpt, one can immediately understand that Duke pretends to be modest. The Duke seems condescending to the messenger, and he is trying to portray himself as an equal. The Duke wants the messenger to return to his master with pleasant thoughts, so the Duke may marry the master’s daughter. The style and composition of the dialogue, the treatment of the messenger, and the Duke’s ironic use of the word officious very well depict the Duke’s character. Although the Duke spoke of officious as a negative characteristic, he wished to see such an attribute in his last Duchess. The reader can find many ways to define the false front the Duke carries, and where he fails to keep it on. The Duke apparently tries to hide his obsessive mannerisms, but even then, they dominate his personality throughout the dialogue.