Skip to main content
John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and the Ecology of Desire
Shakespeare Association of America (2013)
  • Benjamin Bertram, University of Southern Maine
A first attempt to develop the notion of a Lucretian “ecology of desire,” this essay argues that John Webster presents two competing ecologies in The Duchess of Malfi. The dominant ecology of court life is defined by enclosed, oppressive spaces and images of pollution and disease, while the other, transgressive ecology—the world of love envisioned by the Duchess—allows for open spaces and a sense of harmony and tranquility. The latter ecology, I argue, contains traces of Lucretius’ commitment to natural pleasure and intellectual curiosity, experiences that can only thrive once humans have come to terms with the fact that they are not at the center of the universe. Once this decentering has taken place, the “ecology of desire” can change as well: we can live a balanced, peaceful life following the “voice” of nature. While Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi ends with a precise reversal of the pleasurable life Epicureans wanted to obtain, the few scenes depicting the lovers’ pleasure and desire create a utopian, Lucretian ecology on the margins of court life.
  • Ecology of desire,
  • Duchess of malfi
Publication Date
March, 2013
Citation Information
Benjamin Bertram. "John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and the Ecology of Desire" Shakespeare Association of America (2013)
Available at: