Compare the way control is exerted in both Ozymandias by Shelley and My Last Duchess by Browning

Both Ozymandias by Shelley and My Last Duchess by Browning have powerful personas who exert control over their respective areas of control. Shelley describes Ozymandias as a powerful, arrogant and cruel ruler, similarly Browning describes The Duke in the same ways, unlike Ozymandias his control is exerted over the memory of his dead wife, while Ozymandias had (in life) control over his subjects. Browning uses the form of a dramatic monologue to allow the Duke’s cruelty to become evident, while Shelley uses a sonnet (traditionally a love poem) to portray a similar level of callousness from Ozymandias. The forms of these poems are interestingly contrasting as MLD is a very long stream of consciousness that is carefully crafted in rhyming couplets, which seems to be a deliberate decision by Browning to emphasis the control the Duke has over his wife, even in death. Ozymandias, on the other hand follows the rules of a Petrarchan sonnet, which is similarly complicated to execute well and again this form supports the exertion of control that Ozymandias held in life. 

This exertion of control is evident in Ozymandias as the story, told by “a traveller from an antique land” is told. Using the adjective “antique” offers authority to the story due to the tradition of oral stories being handed down through the generations. It also implies that the story itself is as old as time, should be believed and could be a warning to a society that they need to change the way they behave. Power is implied to be dangerous when in the hands of the wrong type of person and this may be Shelley’s overriding political message, which is also true of Browning in My Last Duchess. Browning discusses The Duke as having power due to his status as an upper-class gentleman with -“my gift of a nine-hundred-years old name” reflecting the arrogance of the Duke treating his wife as an object and killing her. The Duke appears to think that having a established name from the aristocracy allows him carte blanche to treat his wife in any manner he chooses as a result of the way “she smiled” at not only him, but others as well. The insinuation of killing is made when the end-stopping is used in “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.” Pausing at the end of the imperative “commands” highlights the contrast between the living Duchess and her implied death. The Duke doesn’t outright admit to killing her, but the implication is clear. Control here is exerted by the Duke in the deadliest way as he lacks control over the behaviour of his wife and is pathologically jealous of the way she behaves towards other men. Parallels are clear that power in the wrong hands is dangerous. Both poets were inspired by different personal influences to write about their subjects; Shelley was in competition with a friend to create a ‘winning’ poem using the subject of Ozymandias, while Browning had moved to Italy and was undoubtably inspired by the story of the killing of the Duke Alfonso II’s (the Duke of Ferrara) wife, Lucrezia de’ Medici as it is said she died in suspicious circumstances.This link is alluded to in the subtitle of the poem “Ferrara”. 

As romantic poets both Browning and Shelley were heavily interested in human rights and were worried about the pace of change in their lifetime, which is interesting as both poets choose to write about powerful characters whose influence is out of control and superior, perhaps again reflecting their interest in people. In Ozymandias arrogance, a supercilious and condescending attitude is shown with the “pedestal” that the statue rests on stating “king of kings”. The repetition shows a breath-taking lack of self-awareness from the character who implies he oversees all other rulers and therefore is the best. However, Shelley’s tone here influences the reader to think that he may be saying this in a negative way. Connotations of a pedestal are being above others, being higher in authority and being untouchable and this is what Ozymandias appears to think he is. Although, the desolation in “boundless and bare.” With the firm end-stopping and the plosive sounds suggesting that he is no different to anyone else and that when death comes any power or control that you exert in life will be gone in death. Shelley seems to be inferring that the way you treat people in life is important and that your ‘legacy’ will fade, but how you treated people won’t be forgotten. Meanwhile, in MLD the Duke also shows a breath-taking arrogance when he uses the first person aside “(I have drawn for you, but I)” indicating to the reader that he is the only one fit to view his ‘Last Duchess’. It is another example of his objectification of his wife, but also his obsessive behaviour towards her. He has placed her painting “on the wall” in order to see her, but then covers this up with a curtain that no-one is allowed to touch. This behaviour shows an overwhelmingly strong amount of controlling behaviour and allows the reader to glimpse the instability of the Duke’s mental health. This is strikingly like the arrogance shown by Ozymandias in ordering his subjects to create a huge statue in the desert for him to be remembered by. Many ordinary men would have died in the construction process as the statue is described as “vast” implying a great size. 

Both rulers exert control in a cruel manner. Ozymandias is described using adjectives as having a “wrinkled lip” and “sneer of cold command” showing that the “sculptor read his passion well” which is clearly a negative reflection on the way that Ozymandias’ facial expressions show his controlling behaviour towards his subjects. While, in MLD the Duke invites his guest, the envoy, in a commanding tone to “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” suggesting that it is not a question in fact it is an order that the Duke gives, which is unlikely, due to his social position, to be refuted. The politeness used by the Duke feels forced which is similar to the way Ozymandias was described as “the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed them” as his behaviour here seems forced. 

Interestingly, both characters also lack control and cannot exert the control that they wish as well as showing control. This is suggested through the desolation and destruction evident in the statues broken appearance with the adjective phrases “trunkless legs” the “half sunk” and “shattered visage” showing that no matter what control and power he had in real life, once dead this is gone and all that remains is the decay of his once powerful leadership. Shelley is writing about the pharaoh Rameses 11, who was considered a cruel and spiteful leader, therefore the statue being broken and forgotten shows that he has, in death, had his comeuppance. In MLD, this lack of control is shown through the ranting tone of the Duke, in his long dramatic monologue and the way that the speech becomes increasingly broken as he continues his ranting. Caesura in lines such as “The company below, then. I repeat,” showing that his speech has a stilted formality as if he has revealed too much to the envoy. As well as this, Browning is also, as stated before, inspired by real life events, showing another similarity in these romantic poets writing.  

Sibilance is used to great effect in Ozymandias to exert the control that was had by the persona being discussed in the poem. “well those passions read” which give it a sinister touch, as we recognise that Ozymandias was an unpleasant man, who took for granted the lives of others. This is very akin to MLD although the poem uses rhyming couplets instead “not” and “spot” which almost reinforces the sinister way the Duke has of recounting his wife’s death, as if by rhyming he is retaining tight control over the story that he reveals. Both Browning and Shelley create a sinister tone through the way the poems sound. 

Overwhelmingly, in both poems control is exerted using the characterisation of both Ozymandias and The Duke. Both characters appear narcissistic, evil in their own way and downright unthoughtful. Ozymandias, while short is a powerful reflection on how to treat people when you are in a position of authority and Shelley’s message appears to be to be careful of the legacy that you leave behind. Whereas, Browning reflects on the cruelty of the upper classes and how they seem to be able to do anything they like without recourse to the law. Browning’s message appears to be a warning against putting on a pedestal the higher classes, as they too have evil inside them. Both poets show a slightly cynical view on power and the control that this gives to people. Ultimately, the poets show a negative reflection on how people can abuse their positions and status and that this is a trait to be careful about. 

BACK