The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Dante finds himself lost in a dark, frightening wood. To regain his path, he tries to climb a mountain, but a leopard, a lion, and a wolf block his way. The Roman poet Virgil approaches him and offers to conduct him through Hell and Purgatory as the only way back to the right path. Virgil comes at the request of a lady from Heaven, Beatrice (a woman whom Dante once loved), who will guide the pilgrim through Heaven once he reaches it.
When the travelers arrive at Hell’s entrance, Virgil explains that the large group of souls outside the gates lived their lives without committing to good or evil, so neither Heaven nor Hell will accept them. At the River Acheron, where they find the ferryman Charon, Dante is seized with terror and falls unconscious. Aroused by a loud clap of thunder, he finds himself across the river and follows his guide through Limbo, the first of the nine circles of the funnel-shaped Hell. The souls in Limbo, most of whom lived in ancient times, lived virtuous lives but were not baptized (since Christ had not yet come to Earth when they lived). Unlike the other souls in Hell, they are not undergoing any torments.
The next four circles Dante and Virgil visit are reserved for those who committed sins of incontinence. In the second circle, they meet Minos, the infernal judge, who appoints newly arrived sinners to their appropriate circle for punishment. Dante is overcome by pity as he witnesses the souls who are guilty of...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Hell. Dante begins his journey in the grim nether regions. “Abandon hope all ye who enter in,” is inscribed on the gates of Hell. With Vergil, the most noble of pagans, as his guide, Dante enters the concentric circles of Hell, where sinners are mired eternally in the crimes that have brought them there. Each punishment cruelly fits the sin. Sowers of discord are eternally rent asunder by demons; violent souls steep forever in streams of blood. There are degrees of punishment in Hell. On the outer regions of Hell, swept perpetually by a whirlwind, Dante finds the tragic adulterous lovers from his own time, Paolo and Francesco. The depths of Hell are reserved for the most heinous of sinners, those who betrayed their masters. Here Dante finds Judas and Brutus, frozen in the Devil’s mouth.
The Divine Comedy provides not only a poetic summa of the literature, philosophy, and religion of the Middle Ages, but a medieval Christian interpretation of all human history. Borrowing freely from Ptolemaic cosmology and the speculations of Church leaders, Dante also found the epic poets, particularly Homer and Vergil, enlightening when it came to describing the realm of the dead. Only here could Dante freely mingle fictional personalities from earlier literature with semilegendary characters from epics and real figures from the Italian city states. Only within this locale, constructed from his borrowings and own dreams and visions,...
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Papacy and Empire: The Decline
Dante Alighieri was born into one of the most chaotic periods of Western European history. His birth in 1265 and death in 1321 meant that he witnessed the decline of the two most powerful social institutions of the Middle Ages the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy. This degeneration—this loss of power, control and respect—affected Dante emotionally, psychologically and politically. The conflicts between Church and State constitute a major thread in Dante's Divine Comedy and are the subject of his Latin treatise De Monarchia (On Monarchy). This work is his plea for a universal monarchy, one that would co-exist peacefully with a pope who would hold spiritual sovereignty over the same subjects.
The process of decline began well before Dante's birth and continued long after his death. By the thirteenth century, the papacy's interests had grown ever more political and less and less spiritual. As C. Warren Hollister writes, it was at this time that the papacy "[lost] its hold on the heart of Europe" (Medieval Europe: A Short History, p. 206). By moving into national and imperial power politics and business, it created and widened the gulf between its increasingly secular agenda and the increasing spiritual needs...
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Not all epics conform to one definition; however, they share enough of the same poetic characteristics so that we can group them under the genre label of epic. Traditionally epics deal with grandly important themes, often begin "in the middle of things," in medias res, take place over an extended period of time and a large area, have a large cast and involve heroic, often legendary, characters. In keeping with their serious subject matter, epics often involve the gods or God in some way. They are narrative in form; in other words, they tell a story. Epics are written in verse of a high register; that is, their authors use formal language and poetic devices like symbolism, metaphor and simile, which is a kind of metaphor or figurative language. Dante's Divine Comedy utilizes all of these characteristics.
Dante's epic tells the story of the Pilgrim's journey from sin to grace. For medieval Christians there was no loftier theme about which to write than the soul's salvation. As the poem opens Dante the Pilgrim, the poet's alter ego, finds himself lost in sin, wandering "in the middle of the road of our life'' (Inferno 1.1.1). The Pilgrim is at the midpoint along the road of his life, a familiar metaphor. The plural pronoun "our" pulls the reader into the action and includes him or her as virtual pilgrims on this journey to God. Thus, the Pilgrim stands for all Christians, who may read...
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Compare and Contrast
circa 1300: Dante's understanding of the universe, knowledge of which is key to understanding his work, was based upon the ideas of the Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer, Claudius Ptolemy (circa B.C. 100-circa 178). Ptolemy asserted that the stars and planets were embedded in crystalline spheres that revolved around the earth. This geocentric (earth-centered) belief placed earth and humanity at the center of all creation, in the location of greatest importance.
Late twentieth century: In 1543 the Polish scholar, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), published his theory that replaced Ptolemy's. Copernicus argued that the earth is not the center of the universe, but that it and all the planets in our solar system revolve around the sun. This heliocentric (sun-centered) system changed classical and medieval notions of humanity's importance in the grand scheme of creation and became the foundation of modern astronomy.
circa 1300: Dante believed that the southern hemisphere was covered with water and therefore uninhabitable. World maps from the period illustrate this view and show only the inhabited northern hemisphere. Dante's creation and placement of the Mountain of Purgatory—with the Garden of Eden at its peak—in the apparently uninhabited southern region were original to him. Nonetheless, he followed mapmaking conventions, also...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare Aeneas's encounter with the souls of the dead in Book Six of Virgil's Aeneid to Dante's Pilgrim's meetings with some dead souls in the Inferno. How are the encounters similar? How are they different? Why?
Choose either Inferno, the Mount of Purgatory, or the heavenly rose in Paradise Lost. Following Dante's description, and consulting any modern illustrations you are able to find, redraw the levels. Choose five levels and put contemporary public figures on them. Give reasons for your choices and placements, according to Dante's explanation of what happens on each level.
Dante lived in political exile while he wrote the Divine Comedy. Research the politics of early fourteenth-century Florence. Use your research findings to explain Dante's criticism of his own city in Inferno or Purgatory. Focus on no more than two characters.
Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari was at first physical and earthly, and he wrote love poetry to her. He later idealized his love as something pure and holy, apart from physical attraction. Research their historical relationship. Explain how Dante in Purgatory and/or Paradise turned Beatrice into his teacher and guide to salvation.
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The Divine Comedy, or parts of it, has inspired a number of films: Giuseppe de Liguoro directed a silent feature in 1912, called Dante's Inferno; in 1924, Henry Otto directed another silent version with the same title. In 1935 Harry Lachman directed Spencer Tracy, Claire Trevor, Rita Hayworth, Yakima Cannutt and Dorothy Dix in a film called Dante's Inferno, about a carnival concession that shows scenes from Dante's poem. Peter Greenaway produced TV Dante: The Inferno Cantos I-VIII. Greenaway shot his film on video for Channel Four television in Great Britain, where it aired in 1989. Tom Phillips wrote the screenplay for this highly stylized, almost experimental, interpretation of the first eight cantos of the Inferno. It features Sir John Gielgud as Virgil Bob Peck as Dante's Pilgrim, and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Beatrice. Hard to find since its television debut, Greenaway and Phillips' graphic version is available as a Films for the Humanities videocassette. It runs 90 minutes and has been retitled The Inferno.
Dante's work has inspired classical composers. In 1980 Carlo Maria Guihni, Dame Janet Baker, the Philharmoma Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra of London recorded Giuseppe Verdi's (1813-1901) Four Sacred Pieces. This work sets some of Dante's texts to music and is available on a His Master's Voice recording. The...
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What Do I Read Next?
Vita Nuova (New Life) is Dante's earliest major work. In Dante's Vita Nuova: A Translation and an Essay (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973), translator and editor Mark Musa combines 31 poems with explanatory prose and treats Dante's love for Beatrice Portinari.
Reliable English translations of Dante's lyrics can be found in Dante's Lyric Poetry (2 volumes, translated and with commentary by Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967)
In Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), Robert S. Haller has collected, translated and edited Dante's own writings about literature, including the important "Letter to Can Grande,'' in which Dante explains how to read and understand his Divine Comedy.
Saint Augustine's Confessions had a profound influence on Dante. A wonderful translation of this work by R. S. Pine-Coffin (Confessions, by Saint Augustine (354-430), translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1961) makes this work accessible to students.
The The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (4757-525?), a Roman philosopher and statesman, is an important philosophical treatment of free will and...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sources for Further Study
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Vol. I: Inferno, Vol. II: Purgatory, Vol. III: Paradise. Translated and with notes by Mark Musa. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1984. Musa's unrhymed verse translation comes close to representing the meter and sense of Dante's difficult terza rima. This eminent Dante scholar provides a summary of each canto at its start, very thorough explanatory notes, illustrations and bibliography.
———. The Divine Comedy. Translated and with notes and commentary by Charles S. Singleton, 3 vols., Bollingen Series 80. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970-75. Singleton's facing-page, prose translation is considered by many to be the best and is therefore the critical edition of Dante's epic poem. His notes and commentary are the most thorough and provide full texts of all references, in both English and their original languages.
———. The Portable Dante. Edited and with introduction and notes by Mark Musa. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. This single-volume paperback brings together Musa's earlier translations of Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise and the Vita Nuova. Like the earlier Penguin editions, this volume contains summaries of each canto, a select bibliography and illustrations. Unlike in the Penguin...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bemrose, Stephen. A New Life of Dante. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000. Biography that includes a discussion following the plot of The Divine Comedy and differentiating between the real-life Dante and the character.
Cogan, Mark. The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Argues that a complex system of interrelated values of sin, redemption, and blessedness is embedded in the work’s structure.
Dronke, Peter. Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Succinctly demonstrates in The Divine Comedy Dante’s debt to medieval Latin conventions. Marshals impressive evidence to argue that Dante did not write the expository part of the “Epistle to Cangrande,” which constitutes the cornerstone of Charles Singleton’s allegorical interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece.
Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Edited by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A collection of seventeen essays by a leading critic of Dante. Demonstrating the centrality of Augustine’s thought for Dante, Freccero builds on the writings of Charles Singleton while refining many...
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