Historical Context in My Last Duchess
Robert Browning loosely based this poem on the life of Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara from 1533 to 1598. Ferrara married Lucrezia di Cosimo Medici when he was twenty-five. Lucrezia was part of the Medici family, an incredibly wealthy banking family that gained political prominence during the 15th century. Although the Medici family was wealthy, they did not have the social status that the Este family would have had as long-standing members of the aristocracy. Lucrezia died at seventeen, only three years after the couple had married. Though she is thought to have died of tuberculosis, it was widely speculated that she had been poisoned by her husband, who was then seeking the hand of Barbara, the eighth daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and a woman of significantly more social importance than his young wife. Browning’s character is presumably the Duke of Ferrara. In this poem, he reveals his sociopathic mind and suggests that Lucrezia was murdered.