My Last Duchess and Othello, IV, iii
In the dramatic form, be it monologue, dialogue or full theatrical scene, the author cannot step into the action to comment or interpret for us, as he can in a novel. We must draw our own conclusions from what we see and hear, and this makes for powerful effects, as a character reveals him- or herself to us by what he or she says or does. In the monologue My Last Duchess Browning misleads us with great skill before we realize that we are listening to a criminal lunatic.
The dramatic force lies in the surprise we feel as the truth finally emerges. In Act IV, scene iii of Othello there is again an agonizing irony for the viewer, who knows more than Desdemona and is of course impotent to help her. Shakespeare works like a dentist without an anaesthetic, and the pain for the audience derives from the unbearable innocence of the doomed Desdemona, who is surely something like the Duchess in Browning’s poem, helpless and bewildered in the face of a murderous insanity in her husband.
Browning’s Duke sounds so sane! He is wonderfully gracious and articulate – “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” (5). As he tells his story he seems to weigh his words with great caution, as if he is quite free of the distorting power of anger or any other passion, and is keen to avoid any unfairness in his judgment: “She had / A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad” (21-2), “…but thanked / Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked…” (31-2). He never raises his voice, and speaks with a measured confidence that quite takes us in.
At first we might be tempted to believe that his attitudes are reasonable: “Sir, ‘twas not / her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek” (13-15). His manner is restrained even as he hints at her infidelity. The painter flattered her about her appearance, as of course he would, being a Renaissance artist totally dependent on patronage, but she was charmed by it – foolishly, the Duke suggests.
“She liked whate’er / She looked on” (23-24). She was delighted by the beauty of the sunset, and the little tribute from the man who gave her the cherries, just as much as “My favour at her breast” (25). What he seems to be objecting to is her failure to be properly selective and aristocratic in her tastes. This is a rather extreme sort of snobbery, but perhaps not unprecedented; we may not find it attractive, but we may accept it as a feature of a proud man with a “nine-hundred-years-old name” (33).
All the time, Browning is luring us up the garden path. We begin to detect the problem. The Duke is immensely proud, a man of great heritage, while she is free of snobbery, charmed by the delights of the world and human kindness, and genuinely innocent. (Infidelity does not now seem to be the Duke’s concern.) Then we begin to see how his pride is really pathological arrogance.
“Even had you skill / In speech – (which I have not)” (35-36), (he lies, of course) to explain your objection to her behavior – which is clearly quite “normal” – it would involve “stooping, and I choose / Never to stoop” (42-3). So, rather than speak to her about his dissatisfaction, which would involve impossible condescension by him, he chose to solve the problem rather more radically: “This grew; I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together” (45-6).
It takes a moment for us to register what he did, so unbelievable is it and so evasively phrased. Then, having confessed to murder, or, rather, boasted of it, he continues his negotiations for his next Duchess, celebrating, incidentally, one of his favorite art works, “Neptune… Taming a sea-horse” (54-5), the very image of the brutal control that he has himself exerted over his innocent last Duchess.
The willow scene from Othello works differently, of course, because it is a dialogue, though it is the inner workings of Desdemona’s mind that the dramatic form reveals here, just as much as is the case in Browning’s poem There is an almost intolerable pathos about this scene because Desdemona is so helpless. She has a good idea of what is going to happen – “If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me / In one of those same sheets” (24-5) and is impotent in the face of her fate.
There seems to be no defence against the ruthless execution of Othello’s enraged will. She is in a sort of trance, a hypnosis of shock. All she can do is wait for the end, and the pathetic simplicity of her reflections here is the sign of a wounded spirit in retreat from reality. The tragic atmosphere is given additional poignancy by the occasional interruption of the everyday details of “undressing for bed”, the habitual continuing because there is nothing else to do in the face of the worst – “Prithee unpin me” (21).
She continues at moments to pretend that this is just an ordinary night: “This Lodovico is a proper man” (35), not a comparison of Othello with her country forms, but a pathetic attempt at gossip. But her real thoughts emerge in the obsession with the willow song, which she cannot resist. It is the perfect mirror of her own fortune: “And she died singing it; that song tonight / Will not go from my mind” (30-1). Like a detail from a psychoanalyst’s casebook comes the unprompted line in the song that gives away the deepest thoughts of the willing victim.
–Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve, —
Nay, that’s not next. Hark! Who’s that knocks?
–It is the wind.” (51-3)
She corrects herself, but the absolute terror of realisation goes through her.
The heroic innocence of Desdemona is highlighted by her conversation with Emilia. While Desdemona genuinely believes that no woman could in fact commit adultery “for all the world” (63), and swears that she herself would not do it “by this heavenly light” (64), Emilia responds, “Nor I neither, by this heavenly light, / I might do it as well in the dark” (65-6), and goes on to consider just what “all the world” might mean as a reward for the sin.
Emilia is not immoral. It is just that Desdemona is on a superhuman and heroic level of behavior, and Emilia is on the normal level. Compared with Desdemona’s helplessness in the face of the corruption of Othello, Emilia’s jokes have an immensely remedial health. It is not a criticism of Desdemona, but it is a firm placing of trust in the human by Shakespeare.
We can imagine that what Desdemona feels and says is very close to the response of Browning’s Duchess. Both of them are innocent and benevolent women faced by deranged men. The creation of character and the realization of human dilemma in the dramatic form are forceful and, in these two cases, immensely painful for the audience or reader. The form makes the reader peculiarly impotent in the face of disaster. We would like to stand up in the theatre and shout at the stage, like the lady in the famous story, “You great black fool, can’t you see she’s innocent?”