My Last Duchess, some points that a Feminist critic could make....
To what extent is a Feminist criticism helpful in opening up potential meanings in ‘My Last Duchess’ Feminist readings of texts allow the text to explore the relationship between sex and power; the stereotypical representations of women in literature and how literature shapes society amongst other things. In Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ potential meanings are opened up as a result of this type of reading of the poem. However it could be argued that other meanings that a Marxist criticism may perhaps draw out are neglected. The title of the poem indicates a power struggle between the characters. In ‘My Last Duchess’ the title shows the male dominance over the female through the possessive pronoun of “My”. This sense of ownership is highlighted by the “Last Duchess” not being an attributed name, only a title, which dehumanises and objectifies her character. Therefore in ‘My Last Duchess’ the female has a denigrated status and the male an empowered one. The power struggle between the sexes is won by the male Duke through his murdering of the female Duchess; he ‘gave commands’ to have his ‘last Duchess’ murdered so consequently the male appears to be the dominant sex. A feminist reading of the title is somewhat restricted however; it could be argued by a psychoanalytical critic that the Duchess is in fact dominating here over the Duke as he became so obsessed by her that she constantly is on his mind, so much so that he has a painting that he calls a ‘wonder’ of her on his wall. Although, the feminist reading is a far more widely accepted interpretation of the title. The Duke asserts what the Duchess may feel or think as though he knows it is true assuming he is right not considering at all that he may be wrong; by doing this Browning emphasizes the sense of complete male domination. The Duke believes the Duchess was “Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” and he also believes that she did not appreciate his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name”. This may be interpreted as promiscuity by many as women in literature are stereotypically portrayed as ‘immoral and dangerous seductresses’ (H. Bertens) which may be shown in her being ‘too easily impressed’. However, this comprehension is one of a male dominated society and many feminist critics would argue that the Duchess is just a happy, harmless person. The one-sided opinion the reader receives of the late Duchess’ characteristics from the Duke highlights how she is now merely an objectified painting the Duke has complete and utter control over. Browning creates an overwhelming feeling of the attempt of the male to control the female which was strong in Victorian society. This is quite a close-minded view of the situation as it could be the perception that this is the Duke asserting his authority over someone who was born into a lower class to him which is what a Marxist critic may argue. Although, similarly to the previous paragraph the Feminist reading here would be what I would personally be more inclined to agree with. A sadistic control is exercised over the Duchess who becomes a victim of the Duke’s desire to dominate her female sexuality. The ultimate form of control for the Duke is murder. He can reveal or hide the Duchess with “the curtain” whenever he wishes, and effectively can decide when “that spot of joy” appears rather than the Duchess being flattered by any other men. It is clear the Duke felt jealousy over the Duchess granting him “much the same smile” as everyone else and fiercely desired to restrict her affection to only him. The respect that the Duchess within the poem shows for other people with her ‘approving speech’ is what the Duke feels rightfully belongs to him exclusively. For Victorian men, control over their women was very important and perhaps Browning – whose Father would have installed in him a repulsion for slavery – was making a comment on the treatment of women in Victorian society and also their portrayal within literature.
Even though the sadistic murder of the Duchess in poem appears to be the result of abnormal psychological state of the crazed Duke, one could argue she played a part in her own death which is only hinted at by Browning, “’twas not/Her husband’s presence only, called that spot/Of joy into the duchess’ cheek”. Here the inference is perhaps that the Duchess was having an affair with Fra Pandolf. Thus there is an implication the Duchess could have behaved in a more suitable manner, instead of ‘flirting’ with other men. However if one delves deeper into the quotation, the use of the word 'only' hints at the fact that the Duke was jealous of any attention that the Duchess didn't direct at him and as the poem is from the Duke's perspective, I would probably agree more strongly with this suggestion. The position of women in the poem’s historical setting of the 16th Century in ‘My Last Duchess’ meant the marriage choice of the late Duchess would have defined her social status. A feminist critique would comment on the 'choice of marriage partner' which would 'determine her happiness and fulfilment in life, or her lack of these' and consider the opinion that although the Duchess married into wealth, she clearly wasn't happy because of the domineering nature of the Duke and so even if she was having an affair with the artist, it would be perfectly justified because the Duke's domineering personality has driven her to do so. A feminist reading of ‘My Last Duchess’ enables one to explore many meanings surrounding the treatment and attitude of the Duke towards the Duchess and possibly her successor. And while other criticisms may offer different possible interpretations, personally I consider a Feminist reading of the poem to be the most insightful as it allows you to comment on the main themes of the text.