A Psychoanalytical Approach to Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”
I shall first present the reader with the poem by Browning which I mean to analyse. The reading of the poem is completely optional, as I very briefly summarise its contents, yet advisable.
My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
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.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
My article is going to be about Robert Browning’s famous “My Last Duchess”, from a psychoanalytical perspective. As per common agreement amongst all psychoanalytical critics, whether Freudian, Jungian, or Lacanian, all literary texts, much like dreams, have a manifest and latent content. Paying respect to this categorization, first I will be presenting a brief summary and analysis of the manifest content, i.e. the text itself, as it is, introducing a few key psychoanalytical terms, then present the reader with Oğuz Cebeci’s view on the poem in his book titled “Psikanalitik Edebiyat Kuramı”, and finally discuss my own psychoanalytical perspective on the poem.
The poem, on the surface, is presumably about a Renaissance period Italian Duke, called the Duke of Ferrara (Adler 223). The Duke apparently has company of a Count in his castle, for there is a marriage arrangement to be made between the Count’s daughter and the Duke. While the company awaits them on a lower floor, the Duke has chosen to take one of the Count’s men, an emissary (Adler 221; Cebeci 92), upstairs, where he houses his works of art. He shows and describes to the emissary two particular pieces, the first one, a painting of his last Duchess by Fra Pandolf, and the other a statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. The former is featured throughout the poem, starting with the very first line, while the latter is mentioned again in the last three lines only. This enclosure, Adler argues, creates an effect of duality, one of interest in aesthetics beginning and ending the poem, and one of social conventions in the mid-section (219).
Next, the Duke relates to the emissary various details about the painting, that it was painted by Fra Pandolf in a day, making the woman seem on the canvas as if she were alive. We have an imperative in the form of a question as the Duke asks the emissary to sit down in front of the painting and savour it. The Duke, then, claims strangers, like the emissary, are never able to fully appreciate the Duchess’s visage, and so turn to the Duke, as if to ask (though they dare not) how the painting, and the Duchess’s passionate countenance on it, came to be. At this point, in parenthesis, the Duke once again reasserts his dominance, reminding the emissary that he is in power, telling him how only he may draw the curtain to reveal the painting, as he has done so.
We then move into the backstory of the painting. Apparently, it was not only her husband’s presence and “favour at her breast” that made the Duchess blossom and blush, but Fra Pandolf’s compliments, the setting of the sun, bough of cherries given her by “some officious fool”, the mule she rode on. In essence, she was made jolly by even the simplest of things, her heart “too soon made glad”, by which the Duke took offense, as he could not bear to have her treat his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” the way she treats everything and every person, of all ranks. In the end, as he would not stoop to take her aside and tell her what it is she does wrong, even if he had the requisite “skill in speech”, he gave commands so the smiles may stop altogether. and thus the painting stands. Its story related, the Duke once again commands, in the disguise of a question, the emissary to rise, that they will meet the company of the Count below. The Duke also, as if making a passing remark, tells the emissary that he is assured the Count will be generous, as he is known to be, and the Duke’s “just pretense… for dowry” will be paid in full, though it is the Count’s daughter which is the Duke’s true “object”. As they are about to go down, the Duke takes the emissary’s, and the audience’s attention to the statue of Neptune, who’s taming a sea-horse.
In his analysis of the poem, Adler takes our attention to various features of the “overt” content of the poem, which will be useful later on in my psychoanalytical criticism. Adler points out the aesthetic and socially conventional duality of the poem (219), the Duke’s assertion of his dominance through questions-as-imperatives throughout (220), the tendency to see the last, and the next, duchesses as objects (221; 222), the incompatibility of Duke’s static, hierarchy abiding character with his last Duchess’s frolic, hierarchy defying mannerisms (221), his jealousy of other men, and even her mule (222), his deprivation of Fra Pandolf’s compliments as “stuff” and the cherry-offering man as “officious fool” (222), his possessiveness (222), his disarming and deceiving lie when he says he lacks in the skill of speech, in the midst of a perfectly planned and executed monologue (222), and finally the work of art at the very end, that of Neptune taming a sea-horse, which is a sea creature that symbolizes vitality and freedom, Neptune clearly being a metaphor for the Duke who views himself as a god, and the sea-horse his duchesses (220).
The manifest content having been summarised, we may move onto Oğuz Cebeci’s psychoanalytical interpretation of the poem. According to Cebeci, along with “Porphyria's Lover”, which he also analyses in his book, this poem is about the role sexuality and love play in the developmental stages of one’s personality, and also the effects of “pathological love” (95). Cebeci, basing his views on Otto F. Kernberg’s writings, who claims that in order that one “self” may love another, they must reconcile their feelings of love and hate (Cebeci 92). If this condition is met, the particular self and their “narcissistic love” is deemed normal. The Duke, however, according to Cebeci, is a character who suffers from “pathological grandiose self” or “narcissistic personality disorder”, who is unable to love another being. The Duke, according to Cebeci, harbors a feeling of envy, stemming from a problematic preoedipal stage, the most characteristic feature of which is the hatred towards objects which cause the pathological self to feel as if they are being deprived of something or satisfaction (92-93). The “object” in the case of the Duke is his last Duchess, who used to treat the Duke like everyone else instead of a “god” he takes himself to be, shattering his grandiose image of himself (Cebeci 93). The Duchess also used to exhibit behaviours associated with human empathy and sympathy, which the Duke clearly lacked, making him despise her even more, in the end punishing her by having her executed.
Moving onto my own views on the poem: I believe the poem is structured as an enclosed message, which Adler dubs as a “double frame”, though he looks at it from a non-psychoanalytical perspective (219). Both at the beginning and the end of the poem we see instances of ekphrasis, when the Duke first describes his last Duchess’s painting, and at the very end when he takes our attention to the statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. This enclosure, in my opinion, is the effort on the Duke’s part to make use of the serial-position effects, namely the primacy and recency effects. According to these principles, the information we remember most accurately is usually those at the beginning and at the end of a list, speech, etc. The Duke, being a cunning master of speech (though he argues he lacks in the skill of speech at one point, to make himself look coy) hides his real intentions, desires, motives, where they’ll be unconsciously absorbed by the emissary (for nothing is forgotten), yet when he thinks back on his little talk with the Duke, it will seem as if the Duke had innocently shown him around and merely introduced to him some artworks in his possession.
Though I have stated that the Duke employs this tactic consciously, he reveals a tremendous amount of his unconscious world in his monologue as well. The method he employs has two façades, then, one conscious and one unconscious. The unconscious side can be regarded as a defence mechanism: through intellectualism and Machiavellian manipulations, the ego of the Duke tries to instill in those around him the sense of his superiority. Yet in doing so, his narcissistic weaknesses are exposed. He does not take lightly to this exposure, however. As Cebeci argues (93), his narcissistic ego was hurt by his last Duchess’s not bowing down to him, as everyone else around him is. His ego is so frail, though, that he would not even “stoop” down to one’s level to correct or reprimand them. Indeed, for the most part, the Duke demands that his wishes be done without his communicating them directly. This is evident in the Duke’s asking the emissary whether he’d like to sit or whether he’d like to rise from his chair and join the company of the Count. Though all these are framed as questions, they are indeed commands. Also, the ulterior motive of the Duke in giving a monologue to the emissary is so that the emissary may warn the Count, to relate to him that if he were not to pay the Duke’s “just” dowry, and if her daughter were to act like his last Duchess, the consequences could be dire. The Duke’s making a comment on the Count’s (dubitable) munificence is also another intellectual device he uses, in order to manipulate his object. To deny the Duke’s wishes, would be to deny the overt respect and compliments he pays.
This compulsion of the Duke to instate his superiority is obviously a case of inferiority complex, a term coined by Alfred Adler, which is prevalent in those with narcissistic personality disorders. Besides the questions-as-commands, we see this in his reminding the emissary of his nine-hundred years-old name, and in his telling the emissary that none may draw the curtain over the painting of the last Duchess, other than himself.
Another evidence for the Duke’s narcissistic personality disorder is his tendency to see his last and next Duchesses as “objects”. The last one is quite literally objectified in the form of the painting and the sea-horse, while the next one, the Duke claims, his “true object”, and not the dowry to be paid to him. The ego of the narcissist tends to see other egos not as egos but as objects, which should bend to the “supreme” ego’s will.
As the mid-section of the poem reveals to us the ego’s defence mechanisms, his inferiority complex, and ultimately his narcissistic personality disorder, so do the beginning and the end reveal to us the Duke’s ego’s attempt at sublimation and the presence of his superego, the superego wishing to keep things socially acceptable. The Duke has dressed his violent acts in the façade of a patron of arts. He turned his unfortunate relationship with the last Duchess (or her unfortunate relationship), into a work of art, open for exhibition. The statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse is also symbolic. Neptune, a god, stands in for the Duke, who has a narcissistic, grandiose god complex. The sea-horse, a free creature of the sea, stands for the Duchess, whose taming is in the form of destruction. Even then, she is not fully tamed, as she smiles defiantly with her passionate smile at all those who see her in her painting, just as Neptune is described as being in the process of taming the sea-horse, not having tamed it yet. The sea-horse is still free at that very moment, just as the Duchess.
Digressions aside, the Duke has made his circumstances be completely acceptable. He is a duke, after all, and has certain privileges, and he is a duke who is quite innocent, a benevolent patron of arts, whose Duchess was the faulty one. The superego may rest fine. We could also say that the superego can be identified in the mid-section as well, though not as obviously. His amicable manner, kind questions are his superego at work, though the violent, the unconscious, the id is always felt beneath the surface, seeping through.
Another way in which the superego performs his duty is in the Duke’s relating his ulterior motives and messages in a disguised form. It would not be socially acceptable to pull the Count aside and tell him to pay up the dowry and tell his daughter to behave, so he delegates his message to the Count’s emissary, and cleverly disguises the wishes of the id.
If we move away from the poem, and analyse the title, we could logically conclude that the late Duchess, was not the first. There probably was at least another woman, who used to be his Duchess, and met a similar end. This can be explained in relation with Freud’s ideas of transference and repetition compulsion. The Duke, damaged during his psychosexual stages, most likely during the phallic stage and the period of his Oedipus complex, feels compelled to reenact his traumas. Indeed, he is planning to jump into his next reenactment, by marrying a new Duchess. The poem is at the moment of transition from one duchess to the another, from the end of the cycle to a new, or old, beginning. We could even say that the first Duchess was the Duke’s very own mother, with whom he had his unresolved Oedipal conflict. The desire to be loved and admired by one’s mother has become a fixation for him, to the point he wishes for all to admire and obey him, especially his wife, him and him only.
In summary, the poem is the perfect analysis of a person suffering from a pathological grandiose self (Cebeci 22), or narcissistic personality disorder. We see every single detail about the disorder, from the intellectual, Machiavellian prowess, cunning, and manipulation behind it, to its employment of defence mechanisms in order to defend the frail ego, and the compulsion to dominate everything and everyone, which ultimately reveal the underlying inferiority complex, to the objectification of all other beings, to the point seeing them as means to an end.
Adler, Joshua. “Structure and Meaning in Browning's ‘My Last Duchess.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 15, no. 3, 1977, pp. 219–227.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. 2nd ed., Manchester University Press, 2002.
Cebeci, Oğuz. Psikanalitik Edebiyat Kuramı. İthaki Yayınları, 2004.
Raducanu, A. L. “Introduction to Psychoanalytical Criticism.” Yeditepe University, Istanbul. Lecture.