In My Last Duchess, a Duke shows his guest the painting of his late wife and gradually reveals how her perceived infidelity enraged him into killing her. Browning narrates the scene through the voice of the duke, allowing understanding to dawn naturally on the reader as though they are hearing the story firsthand. This makes the horror of the poem a personal experience for the reader, who uncovers clues throughout about the death of the Duchess, feels as though they are engaging personally with the Duke, and finally, comes to realize the crime of the story and apply that horror to the objectification of all women.
The cause of death of the Duchess is never stated explicitly, however, the story is a gradual progression of clues which fall into place and lead to the conclusion that the Duke is responsible for her murder. The majority of the poem is taken up by the Duke’s complaints about his wife. Yet although his primary complaint is that she didn’t seem to hold him as the only important part of her life, the diction is carefully selected to imply infidelity- the motive for her murder. When he says, “ she liked whate’er / she looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” (My Last Duchess, lines 23-24) the phrasing of “going everywhere” is suggestive and uncomplimentary for a wife. For the first time, he entreats the listener- and thus the reader- to agree with his decision to kill her before explicitly revealing it, using a rhetorical question.
Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without much the same smile? (43-45)
When she saw her husband, she smiled. However, he considered her smile worthless because it was given freely to many things. It gradually becomes clear that her free emotions are the cause of great resentment in the Duke, regardless of whether she is actually unfaithful or if he just craves her full adoration. This ambiguity makes a frightening statement that as a woman, the Duchess belonged so entirely to her husband that to smile at others was equivalent to a betrayal. When her behavior worsened, “[he] gave commands; / then all smiles stopped together.” (45-46) Following this, the repetition of “There she stands / as if alive.” (46-47) reveals the true meaning of his original statement. Although the living Duchess’ smiles have stopped, her painting will forever smile indiscriminately at husband and stranger alike, a trophy of his victory over her crimes. By having become a literal object and possession of the Duke, the Duchess is a better wife than she could ever be while alive.
Part of what makes the poem so chilling is that by the end of the poem, the reader has the feeling of having personally confronted a misogynistic, sociopathic killer. The self-absorbed personality of the Duke makes it feel natural that he can maintain a conversation by himself, and in doing so, Browning makes the Duke speak equally to his listener in the story and to the reader. He begins,
That’s my last Duchess  Looking as if she were alive. I callthat piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s handsworked busily a day, and there she stands. (1-4)
Immediately, he is inviting the reader to engage with him as he introduces a work of art. He speaks in rhymed iambic pentameter, which makes his statements overly structured and formalized, yet he uses enjambment, sentences flowing through lines without order. This gives the reader the sense that they are listening to a man who is at once obsessively controlling and yet unstable himself. As the story continues, the Duke draws attention not to the sentimental value of the preserved face of his wife, but to the painting’s value as an admirable work of art. Again, although the Duke is the main character in the story, he is not relatable as a protagonist. He is entitled, arrogant and selfish. He is a man who tells the story of his wife’s murder as an incidental detail during his explanation of the only story that matters to him- the story of her perceived infidelity. He takes the time to point out his total ownership and control of the painting: “ since none puts by / the curtain I have drawn for you, but I.” (9-10) In his introduction of the work of art, more is revealed about the character of the Duke than about the painting of the Duchess. As a reader who cannot see the painting, nothing is known about the positioning of the woman in the portrait, the color of her hair or eyes, or the clothes she is wearing. He only describes what is important to him in a woman, which is her value as a trophy and his ownership of her. Anything else is beneath notice. The Duke expects the listener to ask what could cause the wife to pose with such a sincere expression for the painting.
Strangers like you that pictured countenance, the depth and passion of its earnest glance, but to myself they turned and seemed as they would ask me  how such a glance came there; (7-12)
The reader is taken aback, since they don’t have the visual information necessary to lead them to ask the question. This emphasizes the deep-seated misogyny and need for ownership over women that the Duke displays throughout. He has such a strong need to address a shortcoming that he feels compelled to address it before it is pointed out. “Sir, ‘twas not / her husband’s presence only.” (13-14) At one point, he answers the natural question most readers would ask: Why didn’t you talk to her? Answers he, “E’en then there would be some stooping; and I choose / never to stoop.” (42-43) This leaves the reader feeling more sympathetic to the objectified Duchess. He then moves along to the next art piece. In doing so, he emphasizes that the entire story of his wife is only an interesting tidbit to add to the tour. Her value as an artistic trophy is the same as the next statue. Less, in fact. Why? Because Neptune Taming a Seahorse is a “rarity.” (55) The one thing his wife could never give him was complete exclusivity. Fittingly, the last two words of the poem are “for me.” (56) By the end of the poem, the true horror isn’t the realization that the Duke has caused the death of his wife. The true horror is that he is happier with his wife as she is; her smile and her favor preserved forever in a curtained portrait, where the curtain is his alone to draw.
Because of the unreliability of the Duke as the speaker, the reader has to undergo a personal journey of sorting through the presented facts to find the truth and experiencing an interaction with a terrible man. The Duke is an exaggerated misogynist character, however, he represents in extreme what many hold in their hearts in a lesser way. By dramatizing the cruelty of this one character and forcing an active reader interaction with him, Browning gives readers a personal experience with a despicable person, leading them to examine with revulsion any similar traits or thoughts in themselves. The narrator directly engages the reader in the horror of the objectification of the Duchess and thus, of all women.
Browning, Robert. "My Last Duchess." (n.d.): Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.