Why is Dante's work entitled Divine Comedy when there's not even a hint of funny stuff in it?

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shakespeareguru's profile pic

shakespeareguru | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted on

This is a great question, deechavez!  We commonly assume that the literary terms COMEDY and TRAGEDY have to do with whether what happens in the work is funny or sad.  However, these terms are traditionally meant to tell the reader what they can expect about the structure of the work rather than being descriptive so much of the contents.

This isn't to say that you definitely won't find comic events in a work of literature called a COMEDY, just that it isn't necessary.

Dante's Divine Comedy is called a COMEDY because he conformed to two requirements of this structure:

  1. It has a happy ending.  This, throughout works of literature, is the basic definition of a COMEDY.  Look for it in Shakespeare and other writers too.
  2. The tone of the writing is in a LOW rather than HIGH style.  Dante was actually very original here, writing a poem about the salvation of Mankind, but doing it in an everyday language.

So, the next time you go to the movies to see your favorite comedy, see if it stands up to this structural definition of COMEDY.  Does it have a happy ending?  Is its language everyday (even sometimes vulgar)  in tone?

akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The previous post was dead on.  The work is not very funny.  Although, I do find it humorous that Dante used his depiction of hell to place individuals whom he didn't like in the different levels.  If we were back in Florence of the time period, there would be much in way of satire in the work.  The harmony, unity, and symmetry that is presented at the end of Dante's work is where the comedy is present.  It is comedy in the sense of a vision where tragedy is absent.  Comedy, in this light, becomes the adversary of tragedy.  There are some works that seek to be comedic in nature, yet the tragic elements in their presentation can be isolated and bring some level of ominous shadow to the comedy presented.  This is not the case with Dante.  Even the most tenacious reading of it can reveal a comedic ending with God fusing all oppositions, embodied in the love of Beatrice.  Dante's work is called "the divine comedy" because it accomplished what it set out to do in terms of giving meaning to the religious pilgrim wondering how to account for the "lost" nature of mankind.  In this light, it is comedic because of its unifying and harmonious vision presented and in light of the notable absence of tragedy in its resolution.

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