Characterisation and Voices 2

English Language > Extended Reading > Characterisation and Voices

Example 1: characterisation and voice in My Last Duchess

Explore the ways in which the central character is presented in the poem My Last Duchess by Robert Browning - the poem is narrated in the first person, as if it was being spoken by a character on stage. We don't know who this character is, however. We have no name and no physical description - two things you would expect to have for any fictional character. All we have to go on is the words the Duke uses.

The key to writing about characterisation here is to identify the use of certain techniques:

  • title - we know the Duchess is no longer around because of the title
  • possessives - we know the Duke is possessive because of his regular use of "my"
  • repetition - we know he is self-obsessed because of his repeated use of "I"
  • metaphor and form - we know he is hiding something because of his use of the curtain and the fact that the poem in written in rhyming couplets but the rhyme scheme is hidden
  • punctuation - we know he gets angry because the flow of his speech breaks down around line 22
  • meaning - we suspect he may be guilty of something because the ambiguity of "I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together", which has two meanings
  • imagery - we might conclude that he had his wife (the last Duchess) killed because the final image of the expensive bronze statute also works as a metaphor: a lively-sea horse (the Duchess) is being tamed by someone powerful (the Duke) and that sense of life (the lively Duchess, the rolling sea) is now solid and heavy and dark (like death)

Tip: the type of person represented in a character will always illustrate an aspect of the story's key themes. Characters are not just people - they represent ideas. So make sure you discuss the ideas as well.

The Duke in this poem, for example, is very materialistic. He loves things he can buy and sell more than people or life. In this way his character represents the idea of materialism, which Robert Browning has chosen to criticise in the poem.

The character of the Duke is very relevant to the context of the poem. The 19th century was a time of great economic growth. People moved to cities, some made money and spent it on luxuries. The old social bonds that marked traditional rural society were breaking down and individual materialistic values were taking their place.

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