Robert Borrowing's dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess," presents an account of men's absolute power over women in the patriarchal society of the European Renaissance. Through the use of symbolism, creative structure and characterization, the author reveals the general helplessness of woman. Borrowing's vision of 16th century's Italy depicts the reality that women are little more than objects under the control of men. Symbolism is largely used in this poem to serve as a meaner for expressing the theme.
The most obvious symbol is the duchess' portrait, which reflects the dispersed objectification of women in the Renaissance. Women are the images on the wall which are merely men's accessories. The readers may notice that the duke uses very limited words to describe the painting, so what the duchess looks like is very vague to the readers. We can presumably imagine that the duke derives more pleasure from owning the painting than from what is actually in the painting. For him, getting to know who his ex-wife really is doesn't matter as long as he owns her physically.
Other than the portrait, the bronze statue of Neptune is also an important symbol. Neptune taming the sea horse apparently symbolizes women's inferiority and men's superiority. Neptune, the god of the sea, takes absolute power over the sea horse, which is Just like the duke having complete control of the duchess. This provides evidence that women had little to no identity during the 16th century and were conditioned to be submissive to their male masters. Minor transgressions, even as simple as a smile or "spot of Joy" from a compliment, are viewed as tremendous rebellion and belittled immediately, or even worse.
Other than symbolism, the author also applies an interesting structure to draw the readers' attention. It is not only Browsing personal preference that lead him to whose iambic pentameter with five pairs of syllables but also the influence those literary elements make the reader understand the character of the duke. The first syllable in each pair is unstressed and the second is stressed. This particular structure with specific rules produces a powerful and strict rhythm, which creates a negative image of the duke a cold and self-absorbed control freak speaking in a harsh way as if he is giving orders all the time.
While symbolism and the unique structure of the poem aides in the delivery of the theme, the most powerful and effective tool that Browning uses to convey his ideas is wrought characterization. Through thoughtful word choices, Browning creates two vivid characters the duke and the duchess. The duke is cold-hearted, arrogant and he controls everything, while the duchess is simple, lovely and innocent. On the surface, the duke tries hard to show that he is an elegant and noble person who enjoys works of art. He shows off his personal collectibles to the emissary of the Count.
He explains every piece of the art to show how educated and sophisticated he is. But his words betray his real personality and state of mind. He is a male chauvinist who regards his young beautiful wife as his personal possession. In lines 2 and 3, he says, "l call that piece a wonder, now" (Browning). The word "piece" insinuates that the duchess is Just an object. For the duke, his wife's only Job is to please him as a beautiful collectible. If his wife smiles to anyone else, it is considered "sort of trifling" (35).
In his mind, this "trifling" is so unforgivable that he has to "give commands" to have "all smiles stopped together" (45-46). It is thus clear that the duke is a ruthless person whose desire for control is so strong that he may have had his wife murdered Just to stop her from "inappropriate" behaviors. He fully controls her body when she is alive and he fully controls her portrait after she dies. This can be proved by his lines "... None puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you" (9-10). That is to say, whether someone is allowed to see her portrait or not is under his control.
The duke is so self-absorbed that he wouldn't "stoop to blame" her because he has "a nine-hundred-year-old name" (33). Moreover, the duke is greedy even though he is already a very wealthy person. On the one hand, he says "... That no Just pretence / Of mine for dowry will be disallowed" (51). On the other hand, he claims that the awry is not his object, "Though his fair daughter's self" (52) is his real object. On the contrary, no matter how much the duke tries to imply his last wife's disloyalty, the readers still find the duchess has a beautiful mind.
The duke's precious "favor at her breast / The dropping of the daylight in the West / The bough of cherries some officious fool / Broke in the orchard for her" (25-27) are all beautiful things that make her happy and smile. She doesn't Judge the value of something in terms of its price. Unfortunately, in her husband's view, this virtue is a sin which challenges his supreme authority. As a result, she is most likely murdered by her own husband. Through characterization, Browning also reveals the underlying class issues in the 16th century.
We can easily assume that the duchess is from an upper class family like the duke. And yet, her wealthy background still can't prevent her from the tragedy of being a man's collectible. She has to obey her husband's order and her own property (dowry) is under her husband's control. She is not allowed to have a soul and show slight Joy after being praised for her youth and beauty. So if a woman from a upper class family couldn't control her own life in the 16th century, we can imagine how miserable the lives were for those women from poor and ordinary families.
They must have had even fewer choices in their lives. In conclusion, Browsing "My Last Duchess" helps his audience to see the unfortunate living conditions of women in the 16th century. Through an Italian duke's dramatic monologue, supported by Borrowing's skill with symbolism, literary structure, and characterization, the readers come to realize that in the patriarchal society of the Resistance, men controlled everything, including women. Not even in death can women escape their objectification.