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Exploring Context in 'My Last Duchess'

In this worksheet, students will learn to explore the context in 'My Last Duchess' and understand a little bit about Browning's background, inspiration and the nature of the poem.

'Exploring Context in 'My Last Duchess'' worksheet

Key stage:  KS 4

GCSE Subjects:   English Literature

GCSE Boards:   AQA, Pearson Edexcel

Curriculum topic:   Poetry, Poetry Anthology Collections

Curriculum subtopic:   Power and Conflict: 'My Last Duchess', Relationships: 'My Last Duchess'

Difficulty level:  

Worksheet Overview

QUESTION 1 of 10

Always wanted to practise your understanding of context in 'My Last Duchess'?

 

Thought bubble

 

Well, you've come to the right place! 

 

This activity is quite simple. We're going to be looking into the background of the poem, the themes that Browning uses and the history behind the poem. Long story short, the poem is based on the real Duke Alfonso Il d'Este (1533-97). He was an Italian Duke who married a young girl, Lucrezia de'Medici in 1558. At the time, the Duke was 25 and the poor girl was only 14. Lucrezia was 17 when she died in 1561- there were a lot of rumours surrounding her death and many claimed that she was poisoned by her husband. In 1565, the Duke remarried. While this poem is about the Duke of Ferrara, it's loosely based on Alfonso. It highlight's him as quite the sociopath; Browning uses dramatic monologue and rhetorical devices to slowly insinuate that the Duke is an arrogant, egotistical murderer.

 

As you do this activity, jot down some important facts that you notice along the way. It'll be really helpful for your exam, and your general knowledge.

 

 

 

 

Just a reminder: context is the background, environment and setting of a poem. 

 

Browning was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance which focused on art and culture.

 

 

Tick one quote from below which shows this.

 

"That's my last Duchess painted on the wall"

"Sir, 'twas not her husbands presence only"

"Her mantle laps over my lady's wrist too much"

Remember, Browning was a Victorian poet.

 

The Victorian-era of poetry came after the Romantic era. Where Romanticism focused, heavily, on nature and awe, Victorian poetry was often quite pessimistic and depressing.

 

Pick one number, with a quote that could show this dark and depressing nature.

 

1. "Will't please you rise?"

2. "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped, altogether"

3. "Frà Pandolf's hands worked busily a day"

What can we infer about the overall meaning of the poem?

 

Tick the three answers that you think are the most logical.

The poem is a dramatic monologue which shows the Duke of Ferrara as kind and loving

The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, insinuates that he killed his wife, the Duchess

The poem is loosely based on Alfonzo Il d'Este, the real life Duke of Ferrara

It's implied that the Duke of Ferrara killed his wife

It's proven that the Duke of Ferrara killed his wife

Why is it important for us to know that Browning was a poet who was heavily influenced by Romanticism?

 

Pick one number out of the options below:

 

1. Because the poem is about nature

2. Because the poem focuses on art, nature and passion

3. Because the poem focuses on death

Browning often uses dramatic monologue (a single voiced poem) to reflect his speaker

 

Why do you think he does this with 'My Last Duchess'?

 

To show that the Duke is horrible

To provide evidence that the Duke killed his wife

By using language to showcase the Duke's manipulative nature

What one explanation could show that the poem is mostly fictional?

 

 

The Duke is unrealistically evil and is, therefore, a product of Browning's imagination

The Duke is unrealistically kind

Browning uses symbolism and metaphorical language to construct the Duke as a calculated and controlling murderer

Match each contextual idea with a quote from the poem. 

Column A

Column B

Murder
"The dropping of daylight in the West"
Nature
"Notice Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse"
Power and control
"I gave commands; then all smiles stopped altogeth...

Once more! Match each contextual idea with a quote from the poem.

Column A

Column B

Browning's interest in Italian art
"My favour at her breast, the dropping of daylight...
Browning's interest in Romanticism
"That piece a wonder, now: in Fra Pandolf's hands"
Browning's use of dramatic monologue and rhetoric
"Will't please you rise? We'll meet the company be...

Tick one theme that's not in the poem.

 

Murder

Power and control

Love

What idea from the options below seems to be the most important one in the poem?

 

 

Browning's use of dramatic monologue portrays the Duke of Ferrara as a controlling murdererm, through implication and rhetorical techniques

Browning uses dramatic monologue to present the Duke as a polite man

Browning historically details the true events which occurred in 16th century Italy

Browning constructs a poem about love, sex and intrigue to portray the Duchess as a cheater

  • Question 1

Browning was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance which focused on art and culture.

 

 

Tick one quote from below which shows this.

 

CORRECT ANSWER
"That's my last Duchess painted on the wall"
EDDIE SAYS
The first quote reflects Browning's interest in the Italian Renaissance as a lot of evidence of the Italian Renaissance was found in pieces of art and sculptures. So, as a homage to the time-period he loved so much, Browning focuses the poem on a painting.
  • Question 2

Remember, Browning was a Victorian poet.

 

The Victorian-era of poetry came after the Romantic era. Where Romanticism focused, heavily, on nature and awe, Victorian poetry was often quite pessimistic and depressing.

 

Pick one number, with a quote that could show this dark and depressing nature.

 

1. "Will't please you rise?"

2. "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped, altogether"

3. "Frà Pandolf's hands worked busily a day"

CORRECT ANSWER
2
EDDIE SAYS
Number two really shows the dark and sinister nature of the Duke. This is the bit of the poem where the reader comes closest to a confession from the Duke's. The Victorian era was definitely preoccupied with duality (think Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein)- this idea of the facade people may maintain, versus, what they were really like. The Victorians were also really interested in concepts like murder and the underbelly of crime, probably due to the amount of forensic evidence coming into play. Literature concerned with crime was also really taking off- think of Sherlock Holmes or railway novels which concerned themselves with huge secrets being revealed and mysteries being solved! So, yes, this poem is set in the 16th century. However, it's written by a Victorian poet. There's a lot of duplicity in the poem and Browning urges us to see beyond the Duke's exterior, which matches with the concerns of the time.
  • Question 3

What can we infer about the overall meaning of the poem?

 

Tick the three answers that you think are the most logical.

CORRECT ANSWER
The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, insinuates that he killed his wife, the Duchess
The poem is loosely based on Alfonzo Il d'Este, the real life Duke of Ferrara
It's implied that the Duke of Ferrara killed his wife
EDDIE SAYS
The poem is less focused on historical accuracy and more interested in taking inspiration from the real life Duke of Ferrara and the Victorian themes of duplicity and suspicion. Murder and intrigue also appear to be recurrent themes throughout the poem. Moreover, it seems like Browning experiments by writing the poem as a dramatic monologue- it seems as if we're getting an insight into the Duke's mind to see how manipulative the Duke can be! It's interesting that the Duke, the implied murderer, is given a voice through which we witness, firsthand, his charm and manipulation. This then makes the poem a great display of the Duke's arrogance and cruelty, which a traditional narrative explicitly depicting the Duke killing his wife wouldn't have conveyed. Browning's poem, 'Porphyria's Lover', is similar to this one- it showcases a murderer's psychological state, through his voice. Browning seems to enjoy playing around with voices, language and tone and how it displays and shapes personalities.
  • Question 4

Why is it important for us to know that Browning was a poet who was heavily influenced by Romanticism?

 

Pick one number out of the options below:

 

1. Because the poem is about nature

2. Because the poem focuses on art, nature and passion

3. Because the poem focuses on death

CORRECT ANSWER
2
EDDIE SAYS
Browning focuses his poem on art, nature and passion. So, option number 2 is correct. Remember, though, that Browning was a Victorian poet. It's interesting, then, that the poem reflects a war between the Romantic passions (reflected in the Duchess) and the seriousness (reflected in the Duke). This could very easily be Browning's way of symbolising the death of Romanticism and the rise of a more serious, puritanical (religious, serious, logical) Victorian era. Most likely, Browning was just flexing his imagination; illustrating his love for the Italian Renaissance and history through this fictive construction of a manic, delusional and cruel Duke who most definitely (in the poem) killed his poor, innocent wife. But, deeper meanings and hidden symbolism are the reason why poetry is definitely more interesting than it first may seem.
  • Question 5

Browning often uses dramatic monologue (a single voiced poem) to reflect his speaker

 

Why do you think he does this with 'My Last Duchess'?

 

CORRECT ANSWER
By using language to showcase the Duke's manipulative nature
EDDIE SAYS
Browning could easily have chosen a different way of portraying the Duke's murderous and cruel nature, but he chose a dramatic monologue instead. He treats us to the Duke's voice! In doing this, the reader can be more engaged with the poem. We're urged to dig deeper and decipher the meaning behind certain language, tone and the structural features which connote to a hidden idea that's not stated explicitly.
  • Question 6

What one explanation could show that the poem is mostly fictional?

 

 

CORRECT ANSWER
Browning uses symbolism and metaphorical language to construct the Duke as a calculated and controlling murderer
EDDIE SAYS
In reality, there's no actual evidence which suggests that the Duke of Ferrara killed his wife- so all this is a product of Browning's imagination and all of a poem is a carefully constructed, well-executed example of Browning's fascination with the dramatic monologue reflecting the voice and attitudes of a psychopathic mind.
  • Question 7

Match each contextual idea with a quote from the poem. 

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

Murder
"I gave commands; then all smiles...
Nature
"The dropping of daylight in the ...
Power and control
"Notice Neptune, though, taming a...
EDDIE SAYS
Think about the overall meaning of the poem and what tone you think it conveys about the Duke? Do you think Browning uses the future of the Duke to construct ideas and themes of murder, intrigue, power, masculinity and control?
  • Question 8

Once more! Match each contextual idea with a quote from the poem.

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

Browning's interest in Italian ar...
"That piece a wonder, now: in Fra...
Browning's interest in Romanticis...
"My favour at her breast, the dro...
Browning's use of dramatic monolo...
"Will't please you rise? We'll me...
EDDIE SAYS
This idea of linking meaning to quote really enhances our understanding of contextual ideas. In this case, Browning's interest in certain ideas and issues reflected in the poem deepen our contextual understanding of themes and ideas!
  • Question 9

Tick one theme that's not in the poem.

 

CORRECT ANSWER
Love
EDDIE SAYS
Love is not present in the poem. You could argue the opposite is conveyed, though.
  • Question 10

What idea from the options below seems to be the most important one in the poem?

 

 

CORRECT ANSWER
Browning's use of dramatic monologue portrays the Duke of Ferrara as a controlling murdererm, through implication and rhetorical techniques
EDDIE SAYS
Thinking about overall themes gives us an understanding of the context, and from there, we can understand the more complicated way that these themes are shown. Browning uses the device of dramatic monologue to present a fictional mind, based on a real person. Rhetoric (persuasive devices, usually used in speech, to engage and attract an audience) is used, by the Duke, to portray him as a manipulative and controlling man. Ferrara's control extends to the single-voice of the poem; no one else is allowed to speak except Ferrara. We are left to listen and infer.
---- OR ----

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