Robert Browning’s use of the poetic speaker in dramatic monologues allows him to objectively create a dramatic situation while removing himself as a personality from the poem. This is accompished through a process called double masking, in addition to the primary creation of the character or speaker, there exists a secondary creation, a mask which the speaker uses in dealing with the dramatic situation at hand (Garratt 116). The nature of the poetic speaker in Browning’s dramatic monologue demonstrates an authentic replication of human nature in the art of deception.
His creation of a character playing a character within a story for personal gain is analagous to human survival in our society today. As human beings we know how to adapt to our surroundings. We know that how we act and speak affects how others percieve us. We also know that we can use this to our advantage in certain situations. As people we don’t always show our true emotions because it leaves us vulnerable, often times we mask these emotions in an attempt to present ourselves in a way that will help us to reach a goal. This goal can be anything from forming a friendship to getting a job.
In the case of the Duke in Browning’s; My Last Duchess, the goal is to obtain the approval of marriage. In his quest for approval the Duke puts on a display of power and control in an effort to mask his true emotions, which were brought out by his last duchess. The Duke did not know how to control the free spirit of his last duchess for she enjoyed attention that she received from other men. This inability to control the looks and smiles of his last duchess made him vulnerable to betrayal and left him with nothing left to cover his true emotions.
He tells the listener, an agent for the courting of his next duchess, the story of his last duchess. He plays the part of a controlling husband who was displeased with the happy and flirtatious nature of his late duchess. He talks of how her wandering looks and generous smiles infuriated him so much so that it led to him giving “commands” that “stopped all smiles together. ” It is at this point in the monologue that the speaker (Duke) reveals the emotion behind the mask even if for only a second.
This slight break in character by the Duke gives us a glimpse into the true emotions of his inner self and how angered he was by his lack of control over his duchess. This tells the reader that there is more life to the speaker that what he is leading us and the listetner to believe. The Duke represents himself as a man of great prestige bearing a “nine-hundred-years-old name,” a man that takes great pride in the control of his surroundings. This false representation becomes transparent to the reader as the Duke continues with the story of his late duchess.
The reader is able to see that the Duke obssesses over control, physical and emotional, and that he does not have the ability to deal with the thought of losing control. This can be seen through his explanation for the death of his last duchess. Although the Duke tells an ellegant story of her beauty, he loses focus as his true emotions come out when he tells the agent that he, “gave commands; then all smiles stopped together. ” Thus implying to the reader that he had her killed because he could not deal with the flirtatious nature with which she carried herself.
The wandering eyes and smiles of the duchess left the Duke in question of her faithfulness stating, “she thanked men- good! but thanked somehow- I know not how. ” This question of her faith shows the reader that he had lost control of his duchess, in order to reasert his control he had his duchess killed. He then had her painted on his wall amongst his other works of art. With her looks frozen on canvas now the Duke had complete control over her and her smiles. She only smiles for him now as he has put a curtain around the painting with a chair behind it for him to sit and view the lifelike painting of his late duchess.