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Browning’s Characters Have for Murdering Their Victims in Three of his Dramatic Monologues

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Robert Browning was an English poet who lived from 1812-1889. He was known for his use of dramatic monologue. Three of Browning’s best known dramatic monologues are; My Last Duchess, Porphyria’s Lover and The Laboratory. The earliest of which was Porphyria’s Lover which was first published in January 1836. It was set in a cottage during a storm, Prophyria comes to see the cottager, who quite shockingly murders her, with her own hair. The Laboratory, the second of the three poems, was published in June 1844. But is set in the 18th Century.

Many believe that the Marquise of Brivilles may have influenced Browning. It’s believed that poisoning was common in this era. The murderer is a strong and determined, but very jealous and embittered, young woman, who’s believes her husband is having an affair. My Last Duchess the most famous of Browning’s dramatic monologues, is set late in the Italian renaissance period and was the last to be published in 1845. In My Last Duchess the Duke is giving a tour of his gallery to an emissary when he reveals a painting hid behind a curtain. Many believe this poem was influenced by Alfonso II fifth Duke of Ferrara and his wife Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici whom he married in 1558. Lucrezia died three years later in suspicious circumstances – she was thought to have been poisoned. The Duke was then set to marry Barbara who’s father the Count was arranging her marriage. The Count’s chief courier Nikolaus Mardruz was suspected to be the silent listener.

A dramatic monologue is a type of poem developed during the Victorian period in which a character delivers a speech explaining his or her feelings, actions or motives. The monologue is usually directed toward a silent audience. In My Last Duchess the listener is the emissary, the speaker’s words are influenced by a critical situation for example the cottager in Porphyria’s Lover, when he saw in Porphyria’s eyes that she ‘worshipped’ him. Another important factor in Browning’s poetry is irony. Irony is used a lot in My Last Duchess for example, at a glance you might think that the Duke is looking at a picture of his deceased wife on the wall and mourning her beauty and playful personality. This is part of the irony in that he was not mourning her beauty but instead trying to cover up his jealousy ’twas not

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek’.

Browning also uses irony by projecting the characters differently from how they view themselves. In Porphyria’s Lover the speaker believes it is perfectly okay to lie with a corpse of his lover’ all night, ‘all night long we have not stirred.’ However the reader views this as obscure and deranged. Although the irony can be quite obvious to some, it only works if the reader of the poem shares the same morals as Browning in a shocking situation. For example if a jealous woman who murdered her lover’s ex was to read The Laboratory, they might not see anything wrong with what is going on.

My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover are two Dramatic Monologues written by Robert Browning that contain themes of love, jealousy, inadequacy and obsession. In both the poems the male characters are striving for control as they both have women that they view as too independent and free spirited, both women are also too sexual for the men. Prophyria, because she freely goes to the cottage whenever she feels like it, she is clearly the controller in their relationship. ‘When glided in Prophyria’ shows her independence because she did not feel the need to knock. Prophyria is very effeminate and shakes her ‘yellow hair,’ she is the one to put his head against her chest, there is also irony here because the cottager kills Prophyria with her own hair and then puts her head against his chest. The Duchess’ is killed because she is showing too much of her sexuality by being sociable with men, blushing is a sign of her sexuality that the Duke doesn’t like ‘calling up that spot of joy,’ he feels that people will laugh at him because of his wife’s blushes. The Duchess doesn’t appreciate the Duke in the way he feels she should, ‘My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name with anybody’s gift.’ Here the Duke personifies his family name because he is basically saying she doesn’t appreciate him enough, but she appreciates everything given to her, irrespective of size or value.

The most obvious similarity between the poems is that both the murderers are male. In history men have always been superior to women and women were expected to be submissive. The women in these poems had too much freedom so were killed by their partners. This displays obvious male power over women as neither the Duke or the cottager thought much of murdering someone because they didn’t fit their ideal. Whilst speaking both men are looking at their women, the Duke with the painting, and the Lover with Prophyria. You would expect them to be looking at the person they have both killed and feel remorse, but they don’t, they just carry on as normal. Both men after killing the women keep a memento in their place. The Duke with the painting and the cottager with Porpyria’s corpse. These objects display the control the men have over the perfect woman they always wanted, who are in fact mere objects.

The Duke in My Last Duchess can be described as a controlling, egocentric and power loving. The first lines of the poem suggest there is something wrong,

‘That’s My Last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive,’ as if she were alive implies that she is dead, but we cannot be certain at this point because of the use of language. The Duke speaks about the Duchess as if she isn’t important to him. He talks about the painting as if it were his wife and that his wife were only an image, not an actual person. The Duke talks to the emissary during the monologue in a very domineering way ‘Will’t please you rise?’ Ordering the emissary about, this displays the Duke’s controlling character. The reason for the Duke telling the emissary his story is unknown until the end when the Duke mentions he is getting married to the Count’s daughter, this suggests there may be a hidden reason for the Duke telling the emissary about his late wife. He wants the message that he won’t tolerate any sort of loose behaviour, passed on to his future bride.

Throughout the poem it appears that the Duke is talking about his wife, though really everything he says relates back to him in a certain way. This is very egotistical and slightly narcissistic. ‘She had a heart – how shall I say’, here the Duke is talking about his wife’s personality but still manages to relate to himself. The Duke believes that he is powerful, of a higher status than his wife and in control. However the reader sees his arrogance and his unconfident speech which makes him seem insecure. The irony is that although the reader can see this weak side to the Duke, he himself cannot see it, and has put himself on a pedestal.

The language used by the Duke reveals a lot about his character. We can tell how egotistical the Duke is by looking at how many times he says ‘I’ during the course of the poem. The Duke speaks in rhyming couplets which suggests he is very high class and prides himself by using language intelligently. The Duke sometimes hesitates during his speech which reflects normal speech patterns. ‘Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked’. However Browning doesn’t use normal poetic devices such as alliteration in his speech, inferring that the Duke isn’t really trying to sound poetic or really smart because he feels like the emissary is below him. Overall the Duke murders his wife because she doesn’t fit his ideal. However one major difference the Duke has with the other characters is that he didn’t or wasn’t going to kill his wife. He got someone else to do it for him. ‘I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.’

In Porphyria’s Lover, Browning made the character of the cottager seem like quite a lonely, sad man. The weather is used to reflect the cottager’s feelings, ‘the sullen wind’. Although the setting is quite gothic, it is also romantic. A cottage in the country with beautiful scenery, then a woman ‘gliding’ in and making it warm by lighting the fire ‘she shut the cold out.’ Unlike the Duke, the cottager is of a lower class than Prophyria, who has been out at a feast all evening. The cottager seems happy enough to just sit there while Prophyria talks, but then something changes. He sees the look in her eyes and realises how much she loves him and he wants to keep that look forever in her eyes so he strangles her as he wants to keep her to himself. There is irony in the way he strangles her, because hair is used as an object of female sexuality, and is then used to kill her.

The cottager’s language is calm and romantic which makes what he does even more chilling. He talks about killing her in a calm manner, this makes the reader feel he is even more deranged. ‘In one yellow string I wound’. The cottager murders Prophyria because he wants control over her. He also feels like he is saving Prophyria from the societal pressures that she will eventually give in to, as Prophyria does say that she is “too weak” and wishes to “dissever” her ties. He murders her because he thinks it is what she would want, to be with him forever. ‘So glad it has its utmost will.’

The women in Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess are both quite innocent and Browning makes the reader have sympathy with them. The women in both poems are portrayed as too independent for the males liking. In Victorian times women were supposed to be innocent and pure. The Duchess wasn’t viewed as innocent by the Duke because she blushed when other men spoke to her and was apparently very flirty, which wasn’t acceptable in Victorian times. Men were supposed to be superior to their wives, so Prophyria going to feasts and being upper class wouldn’t have sat well with the cottager. The Duke also wasn’t happy because he felt the Duchess wasn’t a very docile wife, she was presumably riding around on her mule instead of tending to the Duke’s need for attention.

Victorian girls were made victims in art to show their innocence and beauty. This may be the reason why the Duke decided to have a painting done of his wife. However when he saw that in the painting she was blushing he was probably horrified as her female sexuality wasn’t supposed to be displayed. A major problem for women in Victorian times was that there were less men than there were women. Women were to be submissive so that they could keep a man because if you weren’t submissive someone else might snatch him away from you. Some women would do whatever it took to keep a man.

The speaker in The Laboratory was obviously willing to fight for her partner because she even went as far as to buy poison that would kill her love rivals. The woman believes her husband has cheated on her several times and instead of blaming her husband she blames her love rival. The woman is obviously very jealous and we also see that she is quite paranoid, believing that her husband is laughing at her behind her back. The poem is set during the Ancien Regime, before the French Revolution, when class played a large part in status and people were very superficial.

Browning reveals the character of the speaker by describing the creation of the potion in detail and making the woman seem overly interested in the ingredients, as if she were fascinated by what could cause death. He also portrays her as very jealous, this is shown when she says ‘and her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead.’ The alliteration and use of ‘and’ emphasises her jealousy and elongates the sentence. The woman is of upper class but even to her the potion is expensive, this is another way in which her character is shown. The fact that she would pay the apothecary all her jewels just to make this potion for her shows how determined she is to win back her man. The word ‘whitely’ connotes purity which is obvious irony. The woman is quite insane and the thought that she doesn’t feel any remorse for what she is about to do is very disturbing.

The setting of the poem is in a dark room with only the old apothecary for company. Not only is it disturbing how much pleasure she gets out of preparing to kill someone but she also gets aroused by it. She says to the apothecary that he can kiss her on the mouth. I find her contrdicting herself because she is angry at her husband for being with a other women, but allows another man to kiss her. She thinks she is clever because she thinks that her husband thinks she is at the church weeping when actually she is plotting to kill his lover, this makes her feel good and proud about herself. Two names are mentioned; Pauline and Elise. This is a slight change of story from previously where she said that she caught two of them together, this shows her delusion as she isn’t even certain who she wants to poison. This also shows how naive she is. The woman wants to kill Pauline and Elise because they are love rivals, this is so important to her because if she and her husband were to divorce she would probably lose all her possessions and money. It would also be very difficult for her to marry again as men didn’t want a divorced woman as a wife.

I think Browning wrote My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover because he wanted to show how women were looked down on, and criticise Victorian views on women. Browning wrote The Laboratory to show how strong minded women could be. All the poems show people will do mad things when love comes calling. Browning is saying that in human nature people will strive to get what they want. Browning used dramatic monologue to so there is irony as we can see the characters deluding themselves. Browning also uses dramatic monologue because a character revelation is much more effective than an action being described by an onlooker. Robert Browning made his poems shocking to exaggerate the fragile mental state that his characters are in, and to make his poems more dramatic.

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