The poem is about a dramatic monologue of fifty-six lines. The speaker is the Duke of Ferrara, and the only silent listener is the emissary who has come to him to negotiate for his second mirage with a count’s daughter. There are a few others who have accompanied the emissary. It is understood that the negotiation has been proceeding on the ground floor of the Duke’s palace. To make his demand clearer and to give the emissary a high idea about his art treasures, the Duke has taken him up to the first floor to his art gallery.
At this exact point the poem starts: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall”. The abrupt opening of this dramatic monologue is traditional. He follows the tradition of keeping secret in the beginning who the speaker is and whom he is speaking to. The secrets are revealed gradually in the poem. From this traditionally abrupt beginning, the poet has the advantage of creating suspense which is the essence of a dramatic beginning.
Browning does not only begin the poem dramatically, but also manages several dramatic turns in the development f the poem. The Duke draws back the curtains on his especially prized possession, the portrait of the first wife, and invites the envoy to sit down to look at it. In the manner of a connoisseur, he invites the envoy to contemplate the beauty of the painting, especially the ‘earnest glance’, and ‘spot of joy’. He focuses on Fra Pandolf’s skill in painting an exquisite facial expression. At this point a dramatic change takes place. An overpowering annoyance working within his mind leads him to create a very different image of the actual lady in the lovely portrait. He suggests that he suffered from Duchess’ negligence to his social dignity. He says that it is beyond his capacity to explain the type of her character. She had the habit of smiling.
The chilling is inherent in the structure of the poem. As the irony is decoded, the Duke and the Duchess appear just the opposite to what the Duke poses to reveal about himself and his last wife.
The poem is written in heroic couplets. In other words, each line is a pentameter line and each pair of these lines rhyme together. The poem is rich in its variety of tones. In the beginning the poet maintains a calm, complacent tone. Then it changes into a tone of annoyance. Finally, the tone becomes confidently cruel.