illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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How does Dante use satire in The Divine Comedy?

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In Dante's Divine Comedy and more specifically in the Inferno, the idea of the contrapasso serves as a unifying ironic feature. Unlike a poet such as Chaucer, whose satire is more overt and biting, Dante's irony is more pervasive.

For instance, in the Inferno, each person occupies a place that reflects the primary choices he or she made in life—what they most wanted. In the Inferno, cosmic irony (when human ideas of the laws of the universe differ from the gods) reveals itself through the contrapasso, as the sinners' desire for self-fulfillment, success, happiness, love, and so on is turned inside out. They get what they want, but their will was distorted: they no longer want what they chose.

In canto 5, for example, the Lustful are swept in a hurricane-like wind, reflecting their lustful impulse to "swept off their feet" by passion. They achieve this goal through lustful pursuits but then are tormented by the recognition of the inadequate object of their distorted love. In Paradisio, the proper object of love creates an ironic contrast to each of the sins in Inferno.

Next, because Dante's program of illumination requires him to hear the sinners tell their stories, we see instances of verbal or structural irony (verbal when the speaker clearly means to deceive and structural when the speaker is naive to what he or she is revealing). As a courtly woman, does Francesca mean to speak of her damnation in such evasive terms? Is she still naive to her sin, or is she trying to cover up her fault so that Dante the Pilgrim will return to life and write her defense?

This interplay between what both Dante the Pilgrim and the sinners say and what they mean provides one of the more intriguing elements of the text. The reader must decipher or close the gaps created by these ironies. Certainly, Dante the Pilgrim is more naive than Dante the Poet, and the journey is how he illustrates the gap closing—or the naive narrator overcoming that ignorance and achieving integration with the truth.

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Dante uses satire in The Divine Comedy to attack what he sees as the rampant venality and corruption of the contemporary Church. And Pope Boniface VIII, as the head of that Church, is a particularly prominent target.

Dante makes his contempt for Boniface abundantly clear, holding him and his insatiable political ambitions as being largely responsible for the numerous ills plaguing Italy. That Dante should have reserved a place for Boniface in hell a full three years before he actually died gives you some idea of what the poet's feelings were for this notoriously corrupt pontiff.

In the case of another infamous pope, Nicholas III, Dante doesn't simply attack him; he makes him look ridiculous. He does this by confining him to the eighth circle of hell, the place reserved for practitioners of simony—the buying and selling of church offices (such as the Papacy, for example).

The eternal punishment for simonists like Nicholas is to be buried upside-down, and the once high and mighty pope looks utterly absurd with his burning feet sticking out of the ground. The episode with Nicholas gives Dante yet another opportunity to take a pop at Boniface. When Dante approaches Nicholas, the stricken pope assumes that he's Boniface and expresses surprise that he's arrived in hell so early.

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Satire is highly prominent in The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri used fanciful depictions of the afterlife to mock social issues and people in his own life, giving his epic poem a contemporary edge alongside its classical allusions.

Many of the tortures in the inferno are satirical. For example, in the ninth circle, a three-headed Satan chews upon Judas, Cassius, and Brutus, the three greatest betrayers in history (according to Alighieri's culture)—this is meant to be a satirical inversion of the Holy Trinity.

The wrathful are swept up in the Styx, a turbulent muddy river in the fifth circle. This symbol represents their own violent impulses in life in a manner both disturbing and comedic, given that Filippo Argenti, a man Alighieri disliked and fought with in real life, makes a comical cameo.

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Satire is the use of irony, humor and sarcasm to criticize something. Allegory is the hidden or symbolic meaning of things within a story. Dante has made use of these various literary tools in the Divine Comedy, in which he travels through the levels of the underworld, heaven and hell.

The entire journey of Dante is actually symbolic of the spiritual journey that man takes in search of God and self-realization.

The satire in this work is that Dante represents the story in a humorous way but in reality, it's a daunting, fear-inducing experience to visit places like the purgatory and hell and meet people who are being punished for their sins. So the fact that Dante is describing everything with humor instead of tragedy is satire. It's ironic. In fact, writing a comedy ( a work with a happy ending) on a serious subject such as hell or politics was really an unknown concept at the time and Dante's Divine Comedy was a very unique work for this reason.

Here are a few examples of satire and symbolism in the work:

The lion, wolf and leopard may be symbolic for several different ideas. Foremost, this is an idea mentioned in the Bible in which a lion, wolf and leopard play a role in the punishment of those who transgress. These may also be symbolic for the three types of sins.

Another one is the hill where climbing a hill has the hidden meaning of struggling to transcend ourselves and opening our mind and horizons to new things. The dark woods represent sin.

One satire is the punishment given to fortune tellers. Their heads are turned backwards, so if they walk straight, they cannot see where they are going. This is satire for what fortune tellers try to do. They try to "see" the future and tell it to others even though no one other than the Creator knows the future. So in an ironic way, they are punished to prevent them from even seeing where they are going when they walk.

There are also satires for Italian politics at the time.

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