Browning's poems are studies of the character. They are studies of the other men. The poet stands apart and gives his characters a platform and lets them speak to us, and as they speak they unfold their character. It was for this purpose that Browning invented a new genre of poetry known as dramatic monologue or dramatic lyric. It has a few well-defined characteristics. It is a compromise between the drama, the soliloquy and the lyric. The author keeps himself entirely in the background and so it is essentially dramatic. As only one character speaks it is a monologue. The monologue is essentially a lyrical outpouring or a subjective self-examination.
"My Last Duchess" is one of Browning's finest dramatic monologues. The poem proves that Browning is a matchless master of this kind of poetry. The poem also reveals the poet's deep understanding of human character and capacity to present it in the most dramatic and impressive manner. As in the other monologues here also the chief character is the speaker of the monologue. Here there is only one listener, who does not speak anything at all. The central character of our poem is an Italian nobleman who intends to marry the daughter of a rich count, whose agent is the silent listener. As his speech goes on we come to understand the character and outlook of the man. As he narrates his relationship with his wife point by point our understanding of him gets widened. Browning is a master of delineating the complex inner life of men. Here we find the Duke talking about his last Duchess, but in fact he speaks more about himself.
Usually what Browning does in his dramatic monologue is to bring the speaker before us at a crucial moment when he is most likely to reveal his character. In 'My Last Duchess' the apt moment is when the Count's agent has come to conclude the negotiations regarding the proposal of a union between the count's daughter and the Duke. It is quite natural that the Duke would look back into the past and think about his first wife and his relationship with her. The snobbish Duke must have taken the agent around the house and on reaching the art gallery he must have shown the portrait of his last Duchess. Explaining to the agent the reason behind the depth of the passion and earnest glance on the face of the portrait, the Duke briefly reveals the character of his former wife, wand in the process lays bare his own egotism, possessiveness and cruelty.
The dramatic situation and the presence of a listener is very subtly and cleverly suggested by the occasional direct address made by the Duke to the count's agent. Indirectly we see his curiosity to take a look at the curtained portrait and then his desire to know how such an expression of intense joy happened on the face of the portrait. This gives occasion to the Duke to describe his former wife's character and the way in which he treated her. His cruelty, his egotism, his jealousy minus love are all revealed to us. Finally there is a suggestion that the agent stood back as they began to descend the steps so that the Duke may proceed. However the Duke invites the agent to walk abreast and as they step down he points to a bronze statue of Neptune, remarking that it is a rare piece.
The poem is thus a very good example of a dramatic monologue. It is full of action, not merely a long soliloquy delivered by a character. It is dramatic, however small the compass may be, and it projects before us a vivid picture of all the emotion natural to a character.