The Duke of Ferrara is speaking to a marriage broker, an envoy of a Count. The Duke of Ferrara has taken him upstairs ostensibly to show him his artistic treasures, away from the rest of the company assembled below. This gives him the opportunity of talking to him more intimately. It also gives him ample chance to condition him so that his case for a larger dowry is represented before the Count his master, whose daughter he is to marry shortly.
The poem opens with the Duke of Ferrara pointing to a woman’s portrait on the wall. This woman he introduces as his previous duchess. He also remarks on the lifelike quality of the portrait. He then goes on to appreciate it as wonderful piece of art and commends the artistry of Fra Pandolf, who worked for one full day before the portrait assumed its present perfection. He then requests the envoy to sit down and admire the portrait. You must have noticed how adeptly Browning is dramatizing the situation by making quick digressions in the narrative. He continues that he had mentioned the name of Fra Pandolf on purpose. His experience so far had been that whoever saw the portrait always questioned him, if they dared, about how that particular expression came to the face of the duchess. The duke, in yet another aside, says that no one else but he is allowed to draw the curtain that conceals the portrait. He assures the envoy that he was not the first to question him about it
In a slightly ironical tone, the Duke tells the envoy that the face of the duchess did not flush with pleasure in his presence alone. He says that the painter had probably made some routine remark about the position of the lady’s mantle. Or it is possible that he had complimented her on her beauty saying that it would not be possible to capture the fading blush on her throat on canvas. The duchess was easily impressed with such courtesies and beamed with pleasure. The duke, a suave conversationalist pauses for a moment to choose the correct word to describe the lady’s nature. He puts it most delicately saying that ‘she had a heart… too easily impressed’. This is sarcastically meant for he had no sympathy with or understanding of the young duchess’ innocence. He complains that she liked all that she saw. He is shocked at her lack of discrimination. Whether she was wearing the ornament presented by her husband, or whether she was looking at the setting sun, or whether she received a branch of cherries broken for her from the orchard by someone eager to please, or whether she rode the white mule round the terrace, the duchess would blush or express her pleasure to one and all equally. He could not get over the fact that since she thanked all equally she probably held his ancient family name in equal esteem with them.
It was below the dignity of the duke to put a stop to such frivolous behaviour. He then tries to enlist the envoy’s sympathy by asking him how he could have handled such a situation without compromising his dignity. He simply says that he did not know how to express his desires to her. He could not tell her how her behaviour disgusted him or how she fell short of or exceeded the limits of decorum. He was not sure whether the duchess would allow herself to be corrected without defiance, it would still amount to having ‘stooped’. And this is something the duke would not permit himself to do. He hastens to assure the envoy that she was fond of him for she smiled at him whenever he passed. But because of his extreme consciousness of his exclusive name he could not tolerate the fact that she smiled at others as well. As this increased, he gave the necessary commands so that her smiles may be stopped forever.
After having narrated the fate of his unfortunate erstwhile wife, the duke once more turns to the portrait with the eye of a connoisseur. He then requests his guest to rise so that they may rejoin the company assembled downstairs. But before they join the others, the duke shrewdly mentions the point he wishes to make. He hopes that the envoy’s generous master would be able to meet his demands for the dowry he hopes to receive on marrying his daughter. But observing the norms of propriety and decorum, the duke states that it is not for dowry that he is contemplating marriage but because he is fully impressed with the merits of the Count’s daughter. At this point the envoy probably fell a step behind to allow the duke to descend first. The duke graciously insists on their going down side by side. As they walk down, the duke draws the envoy’s attention to a rare bronze statue of Neptune, taming a seahorse that had been cast by the famous sculptor Claus of Innsbruck.