Browning was classically educated, and could read well in Latin, Greek and French by the age of 14. The poem reflects his interest in art and history. The speaker in the poem is most likely Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), who, at the age of 25, married Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, the 14-year-old daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Eleonora di Toledo.
Robert Browning takes this brief anecdote out of the history books and turns it into an opportunity for readers to peek inside the head of a psychopath. Although Browning hints at the real-life Renaissance back-story by putting the word “Ferrara” under the title of the poem as an epigraph, he removes the situation from most of its historical details. It’s important to notice that the Duke, his previous wife, and the woman he’s courting aren’t named in the poem at all. Even though there were historical events that inspired the poem, the text itself has a more generalized, universal, nameless feel.
The poem is set in Italy in the late renaissance. In it, the Duke is entertaining the emissary of the family of his prospective wife. The speaker (the duke) draws by a curtain and shows him a painting of his previous wife, inviting the emissary to admire the painting. He then describes his last duchess, her flirtatious behaviour unbecoming of someone of his illustrious name. After describing how ‘all smiles stopped’, the conversation turns back to a conversation of their wedding arrangements.
- Status and Reputation