Canto 5 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

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Minos: Legendary King of Crete who occupies the threshold of the Second Circle and assigns places to the damned

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Those Guilty of the Sin of Lust: Include Lancelot, Cleopatra, Achilles

Francesca and Paolo: Adulterous couple killed by Francesca’s husband, Gianciotto da Verruchio

Summary
As Dante descends from the First Circle, he finds that the Second Circle holds greater woe. As he goes further down into Hell, he finds those guilty of the sin of lust. The threshold to the Second Circle is guarded by Minos; each person who enters must confess to Minos, who decides their fate. The place is dark and the sounds of the souls reach the ears of Dante.

Dante sees first the mistress of Babel. Next he notes Cleopatra and Helen in the Second Circle; both had experienced lust and yielded to their desires. Men, too, had yielded to lust and now reside in the Second Circle. From his studies of history and mythology Dante recognizes three: Achilles, Paris, and Tristram.

Dante speaks with Francesca (wife of Gianciotto da Verruchio and lover to his brother Paolo). She tells Dante of how she and Paolo had been reading of Sir Lancelot, Guinevere, and Galleot and of how she died at the hand of her husband when he found that she was unfaithful. Dante sympathizes with Paolo and Francesca and swoons in pity.

Discussion and Analysis
The further one descends into Hell, the greater the sins represented and the greater their punishment. Whereas those in the First Circle merely sigh, those in the Second Circle are crying out with woe. Minos, a legendary judge of the underworld, hears the confessions, but he does not forgive the sin; rather he decides which area one must go to in order to receive the deserved punishment for the sin.

The Second Circle is the place in which carnal sinners reside. It is the first punishment area for sins of incontinence. Those who do not exercise will power go here; the sins they commit are sins of lust, or sins of the flesh. These carnal sinners are thrust about forever by winds.

Among the souls Virgil notes “the mistress of Babylon.” “Babylon” could refer to the ancient city of Babylon in Asia Minor or to the great tower where Scripture says that many languages began. (The construction of the tower was a result of a desire for or a lust for power.)

Two famous women are residents of the Second Circle: Cleopatra (the Egyptian queen and lover of Antony and Julius Caesar) and Helen (wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and prisoner of Paris of Troy). The men include Achilles (Greek warrior killed by the Trojans by promising him the hand of a Trojan woman if he would join their cause), Paris (Trojan captor of Helen), and Tristram (lover of the wife of King Mark of Cornwall and killed by King Mark upon his discovery).

Francesca talks of how she and Paolo had read of the love of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere. The book they read tells of Galleot who serves as a go-between for Lancelot and the Queen. Like the characters in the book, Francesca and Guinevere yielded to sins of lust.

The punishment of sins of the flesh is to continue to experience the sin; the sinners drift in the wind and remember the love. Because of the choices which they made, the lustful will never experience redemption and peace.

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