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Dramatic Monologue

Dramatic Monologue is a poem in which an imaginary or historical character reveals his/her own personality by speaking to a silent listener or a specific audience. The speaker of the dramatic monologue is not the poet himself, but a character invented by the poet. In a dramatic monologue, a reader learns everything about the setting, the situation, the personality of the speaker, and the identity of other characters through what the speaker tells.

This form was practiced largely by Robert Browning, but other poets like Tennyson, Dante Rossetti, Robert Hayden and Eliot too have adopted this style into their works. The outstanding dramatic monologue in American Literature is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

 

Characteristics of a Dramatic Monologue

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Dramatic monologue allows the poet
  • To explore the complexities of the human character.
  • To reveal the characters’ or speakers’ unutterable feelings.
  • To show the various forces that influence a person’s decisions at crucial times.

Writing a Dramatic Monologue

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To determine that a poetic form is a dramatic monologue, consider the following elements:

An imaginary character/speaker:

In a dramatic monologue, the imaginary speaker is always identifiable as somebody other than the poet. The speaker indirectly reveals his/her innermost thoughts and feelings in an intense or emotional situation. It is usually written in the first person and we can discover this element either at the beginning of the poem or somewhere in the middle of the work. It is this character who is a participant in a developing plot.

A silent listener:

The listener, though silent, is usually implied, and the listener is sometimes addressed in the poem. The reader must take the part of the listener to get an insight to the speaker’s historical and psychological characteristics.

A specific situation/occasion:

The speech tends to take place in a specific situation at a critical moment. The speaker can narrate the lives of others, or his own; he can recount a past experience, or focus on a present predicament. To maintain the interest and tension, the reader needs to piece the story together as the character gradually reveals the situation.

The revelation of character:

The speaker often unwittingly reveals the information about himself or the situation that has different significance to the other characters or listeners. Also, the speaker intentionally or unintentionally reveals his viewpoint, personality, motivation, and attitude.

Interaction between the speaker and audience:

The speaker is neither in full control of his actions or words nor is he in control of revealing the meaning of his actions. Hence the true meaning of his actions is accessible to the audience or the reader who interprets and uncovers the causes that determine the speaker’s actions, his true character, and intent.

Argumentative tone:

The tone when making the case is usually argumentative but can be emotional as well sometimes.

In short, the dramatic monologue should have – 
Dramatic Monologue

Asking certain questions will help us to understand the dramatic monologue better. After reading the poem, ask yourself:
  • Who is speaking and for what purpose?
  • Who is the listener and what role does he/she serve?
  • What situation exists in the poem?
  • In presenting his case, what tactics does the speaker use?
  • What do you personally think or feel about this character and what he has to say?
  • What in the poem reveals the speaker’s attitude?

Dramatic Monologue Examples

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Let us analyze the poem, “My Last Duchess”.
                                                                                                           
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
"Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
"Must never hope to reproduce the faint
"Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men good! but thanked
Somehow I know not how as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech which I have not to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
"Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
"Or there exceed the mark" and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,
E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Browning skillfully uses the dramatic monologue to provide a brilliant portrait of a jealous, possessive, arrogant man who had his first wife, the Duchess, murdered because she smiled at everyone equally and didn’t appreciate his “nine-hundred-years-old name.” As the duke talks to an implied listener, he reveals to the reader his chilling personality.

As you read the poem, examine the answers to the questions below.
  • Who is the speaker in the poem? 
  • What situation exists in the poem? 
  • Does the speaker reveal something about his own personality?
  • How does the listener feel about the character? 
  • How is the monologue presented?
Notice that the work is a special type of poetical composition which is presented as a single speech delivered by a single character to a chosen listener.

Speaker and Listener:

In this poem, Browning adopts the voice of someone else (Duke Ferrera) and speaks throughout as that person.  The Duke speaks to a messenger, the envoy of a count whose daughter he is planning to marry.

Situation:

The monologue is spoken as the Duke takes his visitor to the family portrait gallery and shows him the portrait of the dead duchess. His object is to clear himself of any unfavorable impression that might have been gathered about himself and to impress upon his visitor that his wife was a kind of woman with whom no husband could be happy. There were rumors that his first wife had died under suspicious circumstances.

Revelation of Character:

The beauty of the monologue lies in how the Duke explains his position to the messenger and in the process he reveals the character of his own self as well as of his last Duchess. He reveals not only the reasons for his disapproval of the behavior of his former duchess, but also unwittingly reveals aspects of his own personality as well.

The character of the dead duchess is brought out and at the same time the Duke’s pride and his desire for exclusive possession of his wife is revealed.

The dead duchess was undoubtedly a very virtuous woman but lacked the kind of special warmth by means of which she could have made herself endearing to her husband. She smiled at him, but she smiled at the others too. A casual remark made by the painter could have caused the same blush on her face which some intimate word of affection from her husband would have caused. The bouquets presented by some officious gardener and a precious gift of her husband were the same to her and she would receive them with the same casual courtesy.

The Duke felt annoyed at the impersonal nature of his wife and gave orders for her death.

Dramatic turn of events:

Our first impressions of the Duke are positive. We see that he is a rich man, who seems to be very much in love with his wife. He seems polite when he says, “will’t please you sit.” (Line 5) He seems to be mourning his wife’s death and we feel sympathy for the Duke.

Gradually though our impression begins to change. His critical nature is revealed when he begins to criticize his wife. The Duchess is depicted as a warm and friendly person but the Duke fails to appreciate her good nature.

By saying “I choose never to stoop,” (Lines42-43) the Duke portrays himself to be too proud to even tell his wife that he is displeased. He does not approve of the fact that the Duchess in her dealings with everyone including him is fair and places him on the same fair grounds as the others. He would have liked to see her elevate him.

The dramatic shock comes when we learn that the Duke had his wife murdered and even more shocking is the fact that the visitor he is talking to has come to arrange his second marriage.

We no longer feel the same sympathy we had for the Duke at the beginning of the poem. Our impression of the Duke has changed to a negative one. We now see him as an arrogant and domineering personality. He is egoistical and cold and insensitive.

The real center of interest in a monologue is the mind of the speaker. Unlike in a dialogue where there is an active outer interest, the monologue concentrates on the thoughts of the speaker and produces whatever effect it seeks to in speech.
Compared with most other works, “My Last Duchess” commands attention for its technical perfection as a dramatic monologue.

Let us look at another poem “Life in a Love” by Robert Browning.

Escape me?
Never
Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here? 
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled, get up to begin again,
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.
While, look but once from your farthest bound,
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope drops to ground
Than a new one, straight to the selfsame mark,
I shape me
Ever
Removed! 

An imaginary character/speaker:

The speaker is a lover who seems desperate to please the woman he loves.

A silent listener:

The listener is the man’s beloved who constantly rejects him. As the extended listener when we read the poem, we come to listen and understand the deep emotions of the speaker who hopes that the woman he loves would accept him.

A specific situation/occasion:

The speaker has a choice to either accept his fate and live a life of misery without his love or to continue to persuade his beloved to accept him and hope that someday she will.

Since the latter gives him hope and makes him happy he chooses to live a life in love.

The poem emphasizes the freedom of choice we have despite the existence of fate.  There is no need to give up in despair, but there is happiness in making positive choices.

The revelation of character:

It seems at first that the speaker is feeling dejected and is full of despair but as the poem progresses, we notice a positive note in that the speaker does not want to let go of hope and ardently desires to live a life in love, hoping to win the affections of his beloved.
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