Presentation of relationships in My Last Duchess, Porphyria's Lover and The Laboratory

Topics: Books

“My Last Duchess”, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “The Laboratory” are all dramatic monologues, a fictional speech presented as the musings of a speaker who is separate from the poet, normally to a silent audience. These three dramatic monologues are all written by Robert Browning, famous for his poetry mainly associated with hatred, distrust and deceit, the darker side of human nature.

These three poems also focus on relationships, not only relationships between characters in the poem, but also relationships between Browning and the characters, the listener and the speaker, the audience and Browning and lastly what the speaker says and what actually happened in the reality (of the poem).

“My Last Duchess” first appeared in Dramatic Lyrics in 1842, the poem presents the reader with an unnamed duke who keeps a portrait of his Last Duchess behind a curtain, which only he can control who to reveal to. The Duke then goes on to tell the tale of the life of his late Duchess, how she displeased him because of her lack of dignity.

This triggered his anger and irritation and eventually he chose to have her killed. Although the Duke mainly speaks of his late Duchess, he unintentionally reveals more about the personal qualities of himself. The reader knows that as a Duke, he possesses great power in a hierarchical society, which explains why he is so obsessed with ownership and control. The title of the poem itself already indicates this: “My Last Duchess”. “My”, as in she belongs to him and “Last duchess” reveals their relationship and also implies that she is not his Duchess anymore, probably dead or disowned.

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Most obviously, he refers to her as “My Last Duchess” meaning that he must be the Duke. The poem opens with the Duke showing his listener a portrait of his late duchess and introducing it. He then goes on to say “looking as if she were alive”, this confirms the reader’s assumptions from studying the title, the Duchess is dead. “That piece a wonder”, he appears to be proud of the painting, either because it is well painted, complimenting the artist’s skill, or praising the beauty of his late duchess.

Or even he is just simply praising himself, as such beauty exists proves his excellent taste in women, or because he has the wealth to provide her with all the luxuries such as makeup, fine clothes, jewellery to bring out her beauty. Another interpretation of this could be that the existence of such fine artwork shows his power to have connections with the best artists of his day and also his wealth to pay them. The fact that the Duke still keeps a portrait of his late Duchess suggests a strong relationship between the two. The Duke then asks his listener: “Will’t please you sit and look at her”.

There is no response from the listener. This indicates that the listener is inferior to him, as the Duke probably does not expect an answer in the first place. It’s more like a command rather than a question, the listener has no choice other than to obey, simply because he is inferior to him. Another of Browning’s dramatic monologues that also deals with the themes of obsession and hatred is “Porphyria’s Lover”. “Porphyria’s Lover” was first published in 1836; the poem talks about a young lady named Porphyria bringing warmth and cheer into the cottage the unnamed speaker is in.

She then leaves her hair out and lays her shoulder bare; informing her lover how much she loves him. Desperate to preserve this moment in time he strangles her with her own hair and arranges her corpse in such a way, that the two can sit together like this for the rest of the night. Whilst the speaker is reminiscing, he too, reveals much about himself inadvertently. The title of the poem itself also gives away quite much to the audience, “Porphyria’s Lover”, shows Porphyria’s dominance over the speaker, perhaps he is inferior, as in personality, talent or social status.

It also shows that they are not a married couple. The poem opens with the speaker describing the weather, giving it feelings and emotions, “The sullen wind was soon awake, it tore the elm tops down for spite, and did its worst to vex the lake”. The wind is described as “sullen”, unsociable and destroys the trees out of “spite” in order to “vex”, anger the lake. The wind, trees and lake are personified in such a way that it reflects the speaker’s own personality, feelings and emotions. Here, Browning uses pathetic fallacy, a poetic device to endow natural objects with human feelings, thoughts and sensations.

The poet’s use of pathetic fallacy allows the reader to learn more about the speaker, it reveals to the reader that the speaker is in fact, lonely, angry and unsociable. It is suggested that he’s suffering greatly over something, “I listened with my heart fit to break”. This suggests social rejection, unrequited love, and isolation. When Porphyria entered the cottage, the atmosphere changed dramatically, she immediately brought warmth and cheer with her. “She shut the cold out and the storm, and kneeled and made the cheerless grate blaze up, and all the cottage warm.

Her ability to shut out the cold and storm shows her forceful presence and her supremacy over him (the speaker) as he was unable to do so earlier. She then puts his house in order without any greetings or conversation; once again, this shows her dominance over him and suggests a cold relationship between the two. However, this is quite ambiguous, as it could also imply that she visits him quite often and therefore know where everything is placed, which indicates a close relationship between the two.

The fact that she is able to put his house in order shows that she is in charged, she is active while he is passive, he is sitting there while she is occupying herself with some chores. Already, it is clear that Porphyria is the dominant out of the two. The fact that the woman is superior to the man in a relationship is contrary to the stereotype, especially in a male dominant society where female dominance was rare. This may have caused the speaker’s bitterness and resentment mentioned earlier, he feels intimidated because he is unable to live up to the stereotype.

Porphyria is the one in control because he is weak; she puts his house in order because he failed to do so. This shows him being insecure in his position as a male. This asks questions about his intentions on what he might do to change it. The third and final Browning poem analysed in this essay is “The laboratory: Ancien Regime”. This poem again deals with the idea of obsessive love; however it is spoken from the point of view of a woman. “The laboratory: Ancien Regime” was part of Browning’s 1842 Dramatic Lyrics collection, the same as “My Last Duchess”.

The speaker of this poem is again unnamed; she is in a laboratory ready to buy some poison to kill her rival. Throughout the poem she talks about how she wants them to die and why. The audience learns more from what she does not say rather than what she does say. She unintentionally reveals what type of character she is. The speaker reveals herself to be wealthy, mixes with the highest of society, “dance at the kings”. She arrives at the laboratory to purchase some “poison to poison her”, her as in the speaker’s love rival, this is revealed by telling the reader “he is with her”.

He” is nameless, whom the reader assumes is her lover, but the true relationship is kept concealed throughout the poem. “He” can be her husband, lover or even just someone she simply admires. It is suggested that the speaker is weak; “they know that I know Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow while they laugh, laugh at me, at me fled to the drear empty church, to pray God in, for the! – I am here. ” Her rival and her lover know that she is aware of their relationship and what they’re currently doing, perhaps making love, however they’re not concerned about what she may do to retaliate, or what she can do to retaliate.

Instead, they assume that she is in a church, praying, crying, crying out to God because she cannot do anything to change her situation. This indicates that in others eyes, she is weak, they simply cannot imagine her being able to do anything to strike back. Browning’s three dramatic monologues all centre on the action or planning of a murder. The Duke in “My Last Duchess” explains to the reader that he chose to have his duchess killed because he thought that she was unfaithful and disloyal.

He reveals this subtly, “too easily impressed; she liked whate’er she looked on”, this implies that she liked and associated with men casually, too casual for his liking. He was also enraged because he saw her finding equal pleasure in four different things; his “favour at her breast”, this could be a brooch he gave her to wear on her breast, “the dropping of the daylight in the west”, the sun setting in the west, “the bough of cherries” given by some “officious fool” and “the white mule she rode with round the terrace”.

He believes that the four things are of different value and should not be valued equally. The Duke justifies that although it is good to be thankful and show gratitude to men, but as a Duchess, she should not be so “easily impressed”. She should be more dignified and not rank “anybody’s gift” with his “gift of a nine hundred years old name”. He was about to speak to her, but he reckons he lacks the skill in speech. He firmly believes that even by confronting her, she would make excuses, eventually he will have to “stoop”. And he chose “never to stoop”.

He explains to the reader that he “gave commands” to murder his Duchess and “all smiling stopped together”. He makes reference to the “smiling” because this is the reason in which he chose to have her killed. He felt that she smiled too often and too easily to other men and without remorse he used his power and authority to have her removed. In contrast, Porphyria’s lover murders Porphyria not out of some form of revenge but out of love. By killing her he can preserve the moment of their perfect love forever, “that moment she was mine, mine, fair, perfectly pure and good”.

Another reason for this murder could be that the speaker feels intimidated by a woman’s dominance. The fact that she is more assertive than him, belong to a higher social class than him, makes him feel inferior and weak. In order to regain his confidence he tells himself that she is weak, that she loves him and needs him, “at last I knew Porphyria worshipped me”. He then kills her and toys with her corpse to show that at last, he is in charged and the one who controls her.

Unlike the Duke in “my last Duchess”, the speaker in “Porphyria’s lover” lacks the power and status the Duke has, so therefore he carries out the murder himself, “all her hair in one long yellow string I wound three times her little throat around, and strangled her. ” The fact that he kills her with her own hair is very symbolic, as that was what she used to entice him. The murder is also very shocking because the first few lines of the poem resembles the opening of the love poetry from Renaissance, therefore such violence and murder was definitely not expected by Victorian readers.

Murder in “The Laboratory” is completely different from murder in the other two poems, as it is unclear whether the murder would take place or not. However, it is clear that the murder is pre-meditated because the entire poem is about the planning of a murder. Similar to the lover in “Porphyria’s lover”, the speaker lacks power and authority to remove her rivals openly, therefore she resorts to stealth. She cannot keep nor gain a man’s love so she blames it on her rivals. She believes that by killing her rivals, “he” would come back to her, almost as if “he” wants to be with her, but the presence of her rivals stops him from doing so.

The stereotype of women during the Victorian period was one of vulnerability and obedience. The fact that a female is plotting a murder in this poem and enjoying the preparation in such a way would have been shocking and unusual for the Victorian audience of the time. The Duchess in “My last Duchess” is presented as a terrible flirt by the Duke; however it is truly up the reader to decide how much of an extent of this to believe. There is a clear difference between what the Duke says and what really happened.

The Duke saw the Duchess as a flirtatious woman, but it could be that she was only being thankful. Being thankful and showing gratitude was probably just one of the many innocent qualities of the Duchess, but the Duke happens to consider this as flirtatious behaviour. If this is true then it indicates the Duke’s paranoia and ruthlessness and he chose to have her killed even when nothing was going on. Although the Duchess is the subject of this dramatic monologue; she was never named, only known to the reader by her relation to the Duke.

Browning deliberately chose to do this because it helps to indicate her low status in the duke’s heart, that she’s merely his object, his possession. This is why he was surprised when he realised that “she had a heart” because he was so used to seeing his duchess as an object that he almost forgot that she was human and had thoughts and feelings. In order to put an end to this, he chose to have her killed and her beauty is preserved in the portrait so that she can truly be an object and he likes it better that way. An object can be controlled, but a human cannot, humans have a heart and a heart can never be controlled.

To some extent, the Duchess does gain the reader’s sympathy, because of her low status in her husband’s heart. However, she eventually loses it if the reader becomes convinced by the Duke’s statements about her. Porphyria in “Porphyria’s lover” is quite the opposite; she is revealed by the speaker as a forceful and manipulative woman. The way she removes her clothing, “made her smooth white shoulder bare”, and displacing “all her yellow hair” to seduce him all helps to portray the image of her dominance over him because she is the one encouraging the sexual behaviour.

The readers learn that she is from an upper class family by the quote “from pride, and vainer ties dissever”, “pride” could suggest an upperclassman’s pride and “vainer ties” is a symbol of the rules and constraints her family set for her. The fact that Porphyria is socially superior is extremely shocking to the Victorian readers because it was rare that an upper class woman would even associate with a lower class man, let alone have this kind of relationship with him. This would have been extremely hard to accept and such relationship would have been frowned upon.

Similar to the duchess in “My last Duchess”, Porphyria also manages to gain the reader’s sympathy, but again only to a certain extent. The reader may feel sorry for her for being killed by her loved one, but not too much as they may think that that is the only way she would ever gain true happiness. Her family would never be able to accept such relationship with the speaker and there is no other way to be with him other than death. The speaker claims that Porphyria “felt no pain” during the murder and that “her darling one wish” was heard by him.

This implies that he believes that she did not struggle and in fact wanted to be killed, as that was her wish, so that “love, am gained instead! ” However, how much of an extent to believe if entirely up to the reader. The reader may find difficulty in believing the speaker; as such reason for killing a loved one suggests madness and causes the reader to lack sympathy for him. He is quite similar to the Duke in “My last Duchess”, as they are both obsessed with their victims. Only that the Duke is obsessed with possessing and controlling his Duchess and the speaker here is obsessed with love.

Desperate to preserve and protect the perfect love they share together. Unlike the other two dramatic monologues, the speaker in “The laboratory” has multiple rivals and therefore multiple victims. Her rivals are named Pauline and Elise and she presents them as scornful and manipulative women. “She’s not little, no minion like me! That’s why she ensnared him”, “no minion like me” is ambiguous, as it could mean that her rivals’ characters are not minions, they are not weak. This implies that they are very scheming and manipulative, which is why they managed to ensnare “him”.

Almost as if they captured his heart and took him away against his own free will with tactics and plans. On the other hand, another implication of “minion” is the speaker’s figure. Pauline and Elise are not like her indicates that they are voluptuous and seductive. Perhaps Browning is trying to convey that it is a woman’s body and beauty that captures the heart of a man, not their scornfulness or wicked plans. He is showing the reader the shallow minds of mankind, the fact that men are shallow, beauty and body is all that matters which was not rare during the time this poem was written.

However, the speaker’s words cannot be trusted; perhaps the reality is different from how she depicts it. The fact that her relationship with “him” is not presented clearly suggests that there might not be any relationship present between them at all; therefore it makes it difficult for the reader to fully accept the speaker’s view of the victims. The relationships in the other two poems are clear, but here the speaker’s words cannot be trusted and therefore it makes the relationships presented a little suspicious and doubtful.

My last Duchess” is written in rhyming couplets and enjambment, this is to make the Duke sound arrogant and confident and make the poem appear more like a real speech. Browning presents the Duke as a performer, he tells the tale by imitating others voices, this suggests that he is very conscious about what other people think. The poem ends with the Duke pointing out another object in his collection, a statue of Neptune taming a sea-horse. The statue symbolises the relationship between the duke and the duchess, Neptune the Roman god of sea who possesses great power and supremacy strictly resembles the Duke.

And the sea house, a beautiful mystical creature, strictly resembles the Duchess, only that the Duke’s way of “taming”, is killing. The relationship between Duke and the listener and what business he has at the castle is kept concealed until the very end of the poem. This is vital; because through their relationship the reader learns that the Duke is planning to re-marry and is in the process of choosing himself a new wife, “his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed at starting, is my object”.

This indicates that his future wife is already been seen by him to be his possession and that she would share a similar fate to his last Duchess. The fact that the Duke is ready to remarry shows that he feels no remorse for what he has done, thus reinforces the fact that the Duchess is merely part of his “collection”. Similarly, the rhyming scheme for “The laboratory” is also AABB, however it’s not in continuous form like “my last duchess” and “Porphyria’s lover”. It is in twelve quadrants, a common and standard form of structure.

This could represent the speaker’s normal appearance but inner madness. The fact that she is able to mix with the highest of society means that she must be capable of concealing her inner bitterness and hatred for those around her. “And her and her arms and her hands, should drop dead” Here, Browning makes use of the repetition of the connective “and” to show the speaker’s excitement about the murder, which reinforces the hatred she holds against her rivals. Her speech almost displays a childlike quality, glee for the act she will commit.

Porphyria’s lover” is written in continuous form, verse with no stanzaic breaks and the rhyming scheme is ABABB. The speaker also makes use of religious imagery to justify his own actions, “Porphyria worshipped me… And yet God has not said a word! ” The speaker is suggesting that the murder was right because God had not said a word, God has not punished him. However, this line is ambiguous, as it could indicate that God might still do. Sixty lines could represent the sixty minutes of an hour, thus suggesting that the murder took place in an hour.

In the first half of the poem, which is before the murder, Porphyria is in charge of the relationship and the speaker presents his unhappiness with the unrequited relationship with his “heart fit to break”. However, the second half of the poem, after the murder has taken place, everything seems perfect because they finally “sit together now”. Porphyria can no longer move, which leaves the speaker as the person in control, and clearly, he reverses the roles. Her head is placed on his shoulder instead of his head on hers, and he is there toying with her corpse.

Perhaps this was what he always wanted, to be the dominant person in the relationship. Browning does not condemn any of the characters; instead he lets the reader decide the speaker’s guilt as the story unfolds. The murder in “My last Duchess” reveals the Duke’s obsessive need to control his Duchess; he kills her to remove her “heart”. It is not clear whether the affair was even true or not, if its not then it indicates the Duke’s paranoia and ruthlessness and he chose to have her killed even when nothing was going on.

It is not clear whether the murder in “The laboratory” would take place or not, so it is hard for the reader to determine her guilt. To a certain extent she gains the reader’s sympathy because she is a victim of unrequited love. But it does make the reader question whether murder is necessary. The speaker in “Porphyria’s lover” is less guilty, as his reasons for the murder does gain the reader’s sympathy. To conclude, in each of the three poems Browning has presented very strange warped relationships which could hardly be considered as conventionally loving.

My last Duchess” presents an arrogant Duke obsessed with power and control, who loves his late duchess as an object, not as a wife. “Porphyria’s lover” presents a man who is insecure in his position as a male, knowing that the relationship would never be accepted by their society, he kills his lover to preserve their love forever. “The Laboratory” presents a jealous and vengeful woman disappointed in love, ready to murder her love rivals. Believing that “he” would come back to her once her rivals are dead.

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Presentation of relationships in My Last Duchess, Porphyria's Lover and The Laboratory. (2017, Oct 08). Retrieved from

Presentation of relationships in My Last Duchess, Porphyria's Lover and The Laboratory
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