Robert Browning (1812–1889).
Credit: Open source image.
My stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study."
—Robert Browning, via EDSITEment-reviewed Victorian Web.
As a chronicler of "the incidents in the development of a soul," Robert Browning often allowed a speaker's own words to reveal, and condemn, his or her own behavior. The Duke's monologue in "My Last Duchess" unveils his persona as courteous, cultured, and terrifying, as he describes a portrait of his late wife in stark detail. Browning's "My Last Duchess," first published in Dramatic Lyrics in 1842, is one of the best known of his many dramatic monologues. In the following lesson, students will come to understand the use of dramatic monologue as a poetic device, and they will learn to read beyond the speaker's words in order to understand the implications beneath.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Teachers may begin by introducing Robert Browning, his life, and the characteristics of the dramatic monologue. The "Preparing to Teach this Lesson" section, above, contains a basic introduction, as well as links to a biography of Robert Browning, via Academy of American Poets, which provides a summary of his life and accomplishments. To accompany Browning's biography, the Victorian Web provides a handy timeline detailing the major events in Browning's life, as well as portraits of Browning.
After briefly introducing Browning, direct students' attention to the poem, "My Last Duchess." For the purposes of this lesson plan, we will be using the version available at the Victorian Web, which provides line numbers and a few brief annotations.
Ask students to read the poem silently at their desk, giving them enough time to read the poem through once. Alternatively, the teacher might read the poem in a monotone voice (the reason for this will be clear momentarily), or you might ask students the day before to read the poem at home in preparation. Normally, reading poems out loud is a good way to first encounter a poem, but in this lesson, students will work through the dramatic situation of the poem, use the poem's language to understand Duke Ferrara's character, and then perform the poem in a dramatic way, based on their interpretation of the work.
Tell students that this poem is called a "dramatic monologue," and ask them to consider what that might mean. Examine each word in turn, noting that drama implies the theatre, an audience, characters, and tension. A monologue reflects one speaker's point-of-view, generally spoken out loud to another person or group (the "audience"). With these considerations in mind, share with students the definition of a dramatic monologue, provided by the Victorian Web:
to be a dramatic monologue a poem must have a speaker and an implied auditor, and … the reader often perceives a gap between what that speaker says and what he or she actually reveals
With the above definition, students should understand that they participate as the auditor, a listener who must examine the gap between what is said, and what is revealed. As you continue with the lesson, keep in mind that Glenn Everett argues that Browning's dramatic monologues contain three "requirements" (from his essay, available on Victorian Web):
The lesson will help the students examine each step in turn. With this in mind, ask students to consider the dramatic situation of the poem. Ask students the following questions, and indicate that any answer should be backed up with textual evidence:
Students should note that the speaker is the Duke; they can determine his name is Ferrara by the line at the top of the poem, which some might note appears to be formatted similarly to a character's name before dialogue in a play. The title and the poem's first line also indicate his position as duke, as he refers to the woman in the painting as "my last Duchess." The audience might be a little more difficult for them to discern. The Duke invites someone to "sit and look at her" in line 5. But we are given no further clues as to the audience until Lines 48-53, towards the end of the poem. We discover in these lines that a Count has sent his envoy to make arrangements for his daughter's engagement to the widowed Duke. The scene, then, involves the Duke showing the Count's envoy a portrait of his late wife and describing the painting's creation.
Separate students into groups of three and ask them to read through the poem together. Each student should take the perspective of one person within the poem, chosen from the following list:
Prior to your disappearance, you wrote a letter to a friend, telling about your life with the Duke. Describe some of your experiences both in the early years of your marriage and throughout the painting of your commissioned portrait. How do you view life, and what do you think of the people around you, including your husband, the Duke? What sorts of things delighted you?
You are the envoy of a Count, who has sent you to Duke Ferrara to negotiate a wedding between the Duke and the Count's daughter. Prior to dining with the Duke's other guests, he pulled a curtain aside and revealed to you the portrait of his last Duchess, whom he described to you. Based on your knowledge of the Duke through his own words, what kind of life can the Count's daughter expect as the new Duchess? Do you recommend that she marry the Duke? Why or why not? Use the Duke's own words to prepare your argument to the Count.
You are Brother Pandolf, who painted the portrait of the Duchess. You keep a journal where you write down your thoughts about all of your paintings, and the experiences that shaped their creation. You have finally decided to write down your feelings about the Duchess and her husband, the Duke Ferrara. Based on your knowledge of the events, describe the Duchess, the Duke, and their relationship. Your assessment should be based on facts, rather than speculation.
As each student works through their character, they should use this PDF chart (or it's interactive equivalent) to help cite the line number(s) from the poem that supports their claim. Remind students as they progress that everything in the poem is from the Duke's perspective, and that as the auditor, it is their job to assess if the Duke is revealing more than he intends. Students should be reminded that their claims must be supported by textual evidence, rather than conjecture.
Finally, have each student group write a character profile of the Duke. Imagine how he speaks (tone of voice). Is he controlled? What sort of image does he project to his audience? What are his priorities?
Once the students have their profile complete, ask for volunteers to read the poem, or sections of the poem, out loud, as they would imagine the Duke speaking. Ask students to respond to the performances and discuss whether or not it is in keeping with their vision of the Duke. Finally, ask students to contrast these readings with the monotone reading provided at the beginning of class. What effect does emphasizing the characters' tone have on our understanding of the poem? How does changing the tone affect how we interpret the Duke's intentions? Is it possible that students can interpret the Duke's words without finding any malice? Why or why not?
1. Ask students to write a dramatic monologue based on one of the characters in this poem (other than the Count, of course). Alternatively, encourage students to seek out and write dramatic monologues for other literary characters.
2. Ask students to write a brief essay providing their close reading analysis of Robert Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," available via the Victorian Web. Instructors might provide students with the following question: "What is the difference between the monologue in "My Last Duchess" and the soliloquy in this poem, and what effect does the difference have?"
1-2 class periods