Un-Charitable Love

To understand what Robert Browning comments on love in his poem The Last Duchess, we must look at the duke’s characterization of his late wife.


The duke complains to his potential father-in-law that his duchess was “too easily impressed; she liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks were everywhere” (23-24).  From his perspective, she failed to appropriately appreciate the “name” her husband had given her (33), which would represent the reputation, social standing, and wealth he had offered her through their marriage.  She failed to treat her husband with sufficient gratitude, and because of this, he “gave commands” (45), and she was likely put to death as a result.


The duke operates under the assumption that if he would offer significant material benefits to his wife, she would return with absolute loyalty and submission.  Having a wife like this is expected in a man of such reputation.  Thus, he gave only so that he might receive; and this is shown in his action, for once his benefit was removed, he removed hers.  Browning further shows the duke’s materialism by presenting the duchess as an artistic prize to be purchased.  She is just another painting on the wall next to “Neptune” (53), and the “curtain” (10) covering the painting demonstrates the duke’s selfishness in containing the woman he failed to contain while she was alive.


Browning implicitly criticizes the duke’s approach to love.  The poem forces us to criticize an “I’ll do this good in order to get that good in return” attitude and in this fashion, puts forth a relatively sentimental perspective of love.  Commitment to charitable, unconditional love is more highly regarded.

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