The Laboratory by Robert Browning


The Poem’s Inspiration

  • The Laboratory is set in seventeenth century France where a woman is speaking to an apothecary – he prepares a poison that she intends to use to kill her rival in love. It was inspired by the life of Marie Madeleine Marguerite D’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers (1630-1676), who poisoned her father and two brothers and planned to poison her husband.
  • On 17 July 1676, Marie was tortured with the water cure, that is, made to drink sixteen pints of water (more than 9 litres) and forced to confess. Based on the letters left behind by her lover and her own confession, she was sentenced to death, despite the objections of her defence counsel that the torture made her falsely confess. She was then beheaded, and her body was burned at the stake.
  • Her trial and the scandal which followed launched the Affair of the Poisons, which saw several French aristocrats, including Marie, charged with witchcraft and poisoning. Browning’s authorial methods support this, as the use of plosive sounds and alliteration enforce the speaker’s murderous power and her witch-like, tongue-twisting words e.g. “Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste, Pound at thy powder” produces a rhythmic effect reminiscent of a witchlike chant e.g. “Double, double, toil and trouble” from Macbeth and connotes cauldron iconography.


  • The setting for The Laboratory is central to the story, evidenced through the poem’s title. The speaker refers to it as the “devil’s smithy” and she enjoys the associations the various chemicals and the curling white smokes have with hell, contrasting to the severe Christian faith of Browning’s Victorian audience. The laboratory is secretive and contrasts with both the empty church where she has apparently gone to pray and with the aristocratic dance at the King’s, part of the world of the Ancien Regime, creating a visual opposition between the worlds of wealth and beauty, and a world of the lower classes. The criminal setting of the Laboratory, featuring a world of adultery, abuse of power and wealth, and the dismissal of crimes by all characters in the poem, paints a picture of a world with few morals or principles and a fitting setting for the prefiguring crime – the only world a lower class woman excels in is a world where she has to exploit her body and actively partake in the ruin of other women.
  • Boundaries and thresholds are crossed in order to enter the world of science, a typically secret, illicit world for the lower classes and women, showing the breaking of social laws.

The Narrator’s Voice

  • The Laboratory is noted for its “exhilaration of writing”. The poem defies traditional narrative structures through the main female protagonist. The poem is not without a severe male influence, however. A man serves as the accomplice in order to achieve the woman’s crimes – he may be silent, but he remains an educated man who ultimately wins at the end of the poem through gaining the woman’s “whole fortune”, whether it’s her money (“all her jewels”) or the sexual favours she offers. Women are therefore always the victim, no matter the gender of the killer, as the female speaker internalises misogynistic ideas that blame women for men’s crimes. Women will always inevitably be punished.
  • Men are also presented as trapped – the woman has “ensnared him”, reversing the animalistic connotations given to women and projecting them onto men instead. Browning demonstrates the corrupt world of the French aristocracy where women have no power without a husband. She is a criminal inherently defined by her gender.

The Poet’s Voice

  • Browning’s voice evokes some sympathy towards the narrator who describes her motives which are borne of imagining her rivals laughing at her suffering.
  • However, Browning’s voice is further removed in comparison to My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover, partly to expose the many interpretations of The Laboratory’s character e.g. the ambiguity as to whether she is a nun (as implied in stanza two) or a lady in serving. Later when she states “no minion like me” it could possibly mean that rather then being a servant to the upper class, she is a minion of God.
  • Feminist or Marxist interpretation – Browning is commenting on the harsh patriarchal/ classist structures that affect women or citizens of lower classes in Elizabethan and Victorian contexts, using exaggerated satire to mock society’s expectations.
  • Sexuality is presented as something grotesque and monstrous. In the same way that the “exquisite” coloured poison will ultimately cause death, the allure of sexuality has a similar dark side. The speaker’s character is driven by sexuality and underpins her descriptions and actions, ultimately creating a tragic irony as what drives men and women to celebrate life can also cause that life to end.

Themes of Allusion vs Reality in Stanza One

  • It is not quite clear what events are true within the the poem – the use of an unreliable narrator and Browning’s own voice coming through creates a deliberate ambiguity that distorts and blurs the truth. This is introduced in the first line when the speaker is tying on a “glass mask”, perhaps to protect her health (enforcing the danger and criminality of her actions), but also to obscure the narrator’s appearance and voice – even though she’s speaking, the reader is distracted by use of intense alliteration, irregular metre, plosive sounds and the excited, driving tone, pushing the narrative and blurring reality. The two faces the woman creates alludes to Iago and his depiction as ”Janus”, the Roman God of deception, positioning her firmly as a villainous character. This is immediately followed through the term “devil’s-smithy”, consequently creating a cacophonous hammer-like rhythm to mirror the blacksmith’s hammer.
  • The first stanza embodies the speaker’s descent into insanity – the opening line is subtle and elusive, and the imagery of white “smokes” creates enigma codes and an air of mystery before the harsh introduction of hellish imagery (“devil’s-smithy”). Reality breaks through as we become aware of the truth too late (a reader’s anagnorisis), unable to prevent the inevitable crime.

Structure and Form

  • The AABB Anapaestic metre (2 non-stressed syllables and 1 stressed syllable) create the juxtaposition between the simple rhyme scheme and the driving language that creates an excited voice. While Browning uses a regular rhyme scheme and dactylic beat, his use of an irregular metre and enjambment enforces the speaker’s uncontrollable desire to kill, making us complicit in the speaker’s actions. The reader is allowed to either feel like the criminal perpetuating the crime or the victims being ensnared by the speaker’s intense voice, directly inviting us into the criminal psyche. The dramatic monologue form also shows the juxtaposition of the sense of beauty conveyed within structure opposed with the horror of the imagery and thus a subversive female vision.
  • Whilst the language of Browning’s other poems depicts the male narrator’s voices as collected, cold and remorseless, the voice of the woman is excitable, rambling and displaying a level of emotion not present within the men, a gendered stereotype mirrored through the use of enjambment. Frequent alliteration and use of commanding imperative verbs (“Grind”, “Pound”, ”Mash”) shows the power in her hands. The speaker also constantly uses repetition to highlight her contradictory ambiguities – she obsessing over the powerful male figure of the King (emphasised at the end of stanzas) whilst being jealous of her “beloved” and craving sexual affection from the apothecary, illustrating the duality of the narrator.

Authorial Methods

  • Browning’s poems anticipates the aesthetic sense of the pre-Raphaelite painters later in the century through its fine visual sense and creation of imagery through language, such as the semantic field of jewel-like words/ words relating to luxury – “gold oozings”, “gorge gold” “a filigree basket”
  • Browning utilises doubles meanings and homophones, evidenced in the 5th stanza – “to carry pure death in an earring, casket”. The word ”casket” could be innocently interpreted as a jewellery box, or viewed as the poet foreshadowing the prefiguring death of the speaker’s victims through its other definition as a coffin. The oxymoron in the phrase “death in an earring” exhibits femininity as a disguise or a façade that the criminal can hide behind in order to achieve her actions, a theme similarly seen in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (alluded to in Atonement) and Othello. This, in turn, embodies the entire poem through its representation of the divide between femininity and death, and both of their correlations with wealth and power.
  • The poet makes frequent use of exclamation marks (approx. 17 times), linking to contextual interpretation of hysteria, an ‘illness’ linked directly to periods, and also thematic links to love and lust. At London Asylum, Dr. R. Maurice Bucke adopted the popular Victorian idea that the female reproductive organs were connected to emotional and physical well-being and were most likely the cause for mental illness. This suggests that if a woman was hysterical, it could be connected to sexual frustration. It was said that an asylum offered a convenient and socially acceptable excuse for inappropriate, and potentially scandalous behaviour, implying a tragic end for the speaker due to the poor health standards of Victorian prisons and asylums.

Criminal Elements

  • No restoration of order/Failure of the justice system: Questions are raised over the result of the speaker’s actions –does she murder her intended victims? Order isn’t restored because the crime is yet to be committed, extending the readers’ suspense and meaning that we are the only witnesses to the speaker’s sins – Browning, like McEwan, tricks and manipulates the reader through the exploitative voice of the criminal.
  • Betrayal: Whether or not the betrayal is real between her ambiguous lover, the narrator uses this as a catalyst for her murderous plotting.
  • Lack of remorse: Throughout the poem, the narrator does not show any signs of guilt or remorse for her crime. In fact, she is elated at the thought of killing her victims and the effect it will have the man who betrayed her: “He is sure to remember her dying face!”
  • Plotting: The only criminal actions displayed is the plotting of the killer, and not the carrying out of the crime. She seems to romanticise the idea of murder but exhibits less excitement towards actually committing it (“is it finished? The colour’s too grim”), much like Hamlet’s procrastination towards his revenge. As the poem goes on, the narrator’s plotting evolves as she wishes to murder other ‘suspects’: “Pauline should have just thirty minutes to live!” and “Elise, with her head/ And breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead!”, illustratrating the psyche of the criminal. The narrator thrives off of danger, evident through Browning’s use of exclamation throughout the poem.
  • Victims of Crime: Interestingly, the only insight the readers get is into the mind of the criminal, subverting narrative tradition but highlighting the twisted nature of the speaker and Browning’s satirical methods.

Intertextual Links

  • Hamlet: Old King Hamlet is poisoned through the ear by Claudius; Gertrude is killed by accidently drinking from a poisoned glass of wine; Claudius is poisoned by Hamlet, presenting poison as a theme evident throughout landmark crime texts.
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Tess kills Alec to break free from his dominant power. We can make the connection because of the two female murderers, with both authors portraying women (potentially sympathetically) that attempt to break free of their social confines.
  • A Sunday Morning Tragedy: Both depict a man with malevolent intent and the continued theme of poison or “a cure” that destroys lives.
  • There are many other fictional accounts of Marie’s life, as she was a real-life criminal with a great effect on how society viewed torture, female killers and punishment. One of these fictional retellings is The Leather Funnel by Arthur Conan Doyle, a writer that is infamous for his crime writing.

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