This dramatic monologue is written in rhymed heroic couplets, a verse form popular in the Neo-classical poetry of the 18th century and used to narrate heroic works, famously implemented by Alexander Pope in his translation of the Iliad. This stylistic device serves to signal to the reader that the presumed starting point for the interpretation of the character of the Duke is that of a heroic character. Yet, this form was also used in Neo-classical poetry as a vehicle for parody of the genre of the epic and heroic through the development of the mock heroic genre in the works of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, thus preparing the reader for the undermining and problematizing of the heroic status of the main character, as well as for the failure to meet the expectations and the values he is supposed to embody. Furthermore, the form of the dramatic monologue is directly linked and originates from the dramatic soliloquy, a scene in a play where the character often contemplates and reveals the true psychological condition and character profile. This is a further signal for the reader to be careful and to analyze the text and the speech of the Duke in order to properly diagnose the true state of the main character and narrator. This way, we see how Browning through the choice of the genre, literary form, structure and meter of “My Last Duchess” prepares the stage and sets the scene for the story to unfold, but is also guiding the reader through the already pre-established parameters that are positioned within the triangle created by the author, literature (tradition) and the reader.
The conflict within the narration and the testimony of the Duke is evidenced in his speech. The structure of his speech is the first signal that we are dealing with a poem which is addressing themes which are relevant to its contemporary context, while the language is stylized and archaic to a certain degree, it is till the English language of the 19th century. This serves Browning to indicate that his intentions with the poem is not a mere restoration or illustration of a distant historical period for the diversion of his readers, but rather to use it as a background to construct a discussion and meditate on certain universal topics, though from the vantage point of the value horizon of English society in the first half of the 19th century. This is a language befitting a Victorian gentleman, aristocrat and a patriarchal figure, yet also language which is easily understandable for the Victorian public. Thus, the poem is a suitable medium for the introduction and discussion of contemporary topics, enabling the contemporary reader to more easily understand and receive subconsciously the messages hidden behind the seemingly solid and authoritative speech of the Duke.
Browning skillfully depicts the relations present in patriarchal society with the very first words uttered by the Duke in his monologue when presenting the portrait of his late wife. Her presence in the memory and her perception by society is solely mediated through the framed picture commissioned by her husband, the person who has sole control over it and decides who can see it or not. A picture by its nature is silent and lacks a voice of its own, even though it tells a story, yet it needs an external authority to read, interpret and communicate her story. In this case that is the role of the Duke of Ferrara, whose authority is derived not only from his person, but is also designated and sanctioned by patriarchal society itself. Browning exposes his authorative position not only through the structure of the dramatic monologue, but also through the depiction of his speech and the syntax and phrases that he uses. It is a subtle procedure to undermine from the very start the dominant position of the Duke both in society, as well as in the organization of the dramatic monologue.
The introduction of the Duke’s interlocutor, the envoy of the Count of Tirol, helps Browning to further open up the structure of the poem and fully utilize the potential of the dramatic monologue as a narrative form. The introduction of a second character and voice brings to life the polyphonic and heteroglossic aspects of the dramatic monologue. At the same time, when the Duke describes the portrait of his last Duchess, he also incorporates the voice of the painter Fra Pandolph by quoting his compliments given to the Duchess.
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.”