By Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2012
Type of Work
The Divine Comedy was originally entitled La commedia di Dante Alighieri (The Comedy of Dante Alighieri). In 1555, when a special edition of the poem was published in Venice, its admirers added the word Divina (Divine) to the title to call attention to the greatness of the work. Thus, it became known as La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) and the author's name was dropped from the title. In the original title, di (of) appears to have a double meaning. On the one hand, it means Dante wrote the work. On the other, it means Dante experienced what took place in the work.
The action takes place in 1300. It begins in the Forest of Darkness on Good Friday, the day commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, and ends the following Thursday. When Dante starts his journey, he is thirty-five years old—exactly half the biblical life span of "three score years and ten." From the Forest of Darkness, Dante proceeds through Hell and Purgatory, then ascends into Heaven.
Dante: The main character, or protagonist, of the poem is the author himself. No other epic poets before him—including Homer and Virgil—had made themselves the main characters of their poems.
Virgil (Virgil): The deceased Roman poet Publius Virgilius Maro, known as Virgil or Virgil, escorts Dante through Hell and Purgatory. He symbolizes human reason. Virgil (70-19 BC), a poet Dante admired, wrote the great Latin epic The Aeneid. This work chronicled the exploits of the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas, who escaped Troy after the Trojan War and settled in Italy. There, his descendants founded Rome.
Beatrice: Beatrice Portinari (1265-1290), believed to be the daughter of banker Folco Portinari, guides Dante into the celestial realm. Beatrice, who represents faith and grace, was Dante's first love, and he never forgot her even after he married Gemma Donati and Beatrice married Simon de Bardi.
St. Bernard: A French Cistercian monk and abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), guides and instructs Dante when the poet reaches the highest region of heaven. Bernard supported the ascendancy of Pope Innocent II against Anacletus II, an antipope. He preached in favor of the Second Crusade, strongly opposed heresy, and wrote many hymns that remain popular today.
Mythological Personages and Creatures: Examples of the mythological figures in The Divine Comedy are the following:
Geryon: Monster with a stinger. Geryon is a symbol of fraud
Ulysses: Wily Greek who devised the Trojan horse, enabling Greece to defeat Troy in the Trojan War; he is in hell as a deceiver. The Greek name of Ulysses is Odysseus. He was the main character Home's great epicThe Odyssey
Arachne: Maiden turned into a spider after angering Minerva (Athena), goddess of wisdom and war.
The Furies: Avengers of crimes.
The Harpies: Hideous monsters.
Charon: Boatman who ferries soul across a river to the entrance of hell.
Plutus: Servant of Satan. Plutus, a symbol of greed, flatters the devil.
Chiron: Wise centaur (creature that was part horse and part human).
Jason: Famed retriever of the Golden Fleece who abandoned his wife, Medea, for another woman.
Deceased Humans: Among the deceased humans in the poem are the following:
Homer: Great epic poet of ancient Greece who authored The Iliad andThe Odyssey
Horace, Ovid, and Lucan: Poets of ancient Rome.
Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta: Illicit lovers killed by Francesca's husband.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt:Seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in the Macedonian dynasty. She was the seventh Cleopatra, having the full title of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Goddess Who Loves Her Father). She is famous for her love affairs with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Cato: Righteous government official of ancient Rome.
Caiaphas: Jewish high priest during the time of Jesus.
Saladin: Muslim leader who fought valiantly against the crusaders.
Semiramis: Sinful queen of Assyria who was said to be the founder of Babylon.
Venedico Caccianemico: Italian politician accused of pimping.
Griffolino of Arezzo: Man who pretended that he could teach Alberto of Siena to fly.
Pope Nicholas III: Pontiff associated with simony, the practice of buying or selling ecclesiastical offices or benefices.
Pierre de la Brosse: Chancellor of France executed in 1278 for treachery. He was innocent.
Brutus and Cassius: Ringleaders of the assassination plot against Julius Caesar.
Judas: Betrayer of Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Benedict, St.Peter, St. John: Important figures in the development of Roman Catholicism and Christianity.
Supernatural Beings: These include Lucifer, demons, and angels..
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
The Divine Comedy has three sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise or Heaven). The first section has 33 cantos (chapters) and an introduction of 1 canto for a total of 34. The second and third sections each have 33 cantos. The characters include mythological and historical personages.
The Forest of Error
On Good Friday in 1300, the thirty-five-year-old Dante enters the Forest of Error, a dark and ominous wood symbolizing his own sinful materialism and the materialism of the world in general. At the top of a hill in the distance, he sees a light representing the hope of the resurrected Christ. When he attempts to climb toward the light, a leopard, lion, and she-wolf—which symbolize human iniquity—block his way. The spirit of the Roman poet Virgil (also spelled Vergil), author of the epic The Aeneid, comes forth to rescue him. Virgil, the exemplar of human reason, offers to escort him out of the Forest of Error by another route, for there is no way to get by the she-wolf. This alternate route leads first through Hell, where Dante will recognize sin for what it is, then through Purgatory, where Dante will abjure sin and purge himself of it. Finally, it leads to Heaven, where Beatrice—a woman Dante had loved before her death in 1295—will become his guide while Virgil returns from whence he came, for human reason cannot mount the heights of paradise. Dante happily agrees to make the journey, and they depart.
After passing into hell, Dante and Virgil hear the groans and wails of the damned in the outer reaches of the abyss and see persons who were lukewarm and halfhearted in their moral lives. They then cross the Acheron River and arrive at a cone-shaped cavern with nine circles. In the First Circle at the top, called Limbo, are the least offensive souls, such as unbaptized but well-meaning heathens. They suffer no torment. However, they cannot move on to Purgatory or Heaven because they died before Christ brought redemption. Virgil himself dwells in the First Circle.
They then pass down through the other eight circles, seeing terrible sights of suffering experienced by those who died in mortal sin (in Catholicism, the worst kind of sin, such as willful murder and rape). Circles 2 through 6 contain those who could not control their desires for sex, food, money, or false religion (heresy). Among the personages they encounter are Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, the Greek warrior Achilles, Helen of Troy, and the man who carried her off, Paris.The Seventh Circle contains those who committed violence against themselves or others, or against God himself. The Eighth Circle contains hypocrites, thieves, forgers, alchemists, swindlers, flatterers, and deceivers. The Ninth Circle, reserved for the worst evildoers, are traitors of every kind—those who were false to friends or relatives, or to their country or a noble cause. Dante sees two political leaders frozen together in a lake, head to head. He also encounters the most abominable of all traitors—Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ—and Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Satan himself, the arch fiend, is here frozen in the lake.
Dante and Virgil next arrive at the Mount of Purgatory, which is surrounded by an ocean. On ten terraces running up the side of the mountain are souls purging themselves of venial (less serious) sins such as negligence, pride, envy, sloth, or political intrigue. Dante exults in the light and hope that greet him after leaving the horrid realm of
darkness and death. At the entrance to Purgatory, Dante and Virgil meet Cato, an ancient Roman who, as censor in 184 BC, attempted to root out immorality and corruption in Roman life. In Dante's poem, Cato symbolizes the four cardinal virtues of Roman Catholicism: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. On Cato's instructions, Virgil cleanses Dante's face of the grime of hell and girdles his
waist with a reed, symbolizing humility. An angel writes seven P's across Dante's forehead, each representing one of the seven deadly sins. (The Italian word for sin begins with a P.) The angel then tells Dante he must wash away the P's—that is, purge himself of sin—while in Purgatory.
Still observing from the opposite bank of the river (and still in Purgatory), Dante sees a pageant in which the participants and sacred objects symbolize books of the Bible, virtues, the human and divine natures of Christ, Saints Peter and Paul, and other disciples of the Christian religion. Beatrice is there, too. Out of love for him, she rebukes him for the sins he has committed. After he confesses his guilt, she invites the purified Dante to come across the river and ascend to heaven.
Heaven, a place of perfect happiness, is a celestial region with planets, stars, and other bodies. Astronomically, it resembles the earth-centered (geocentric) system of Ptolemy rather than the sun-centered (heliocentric) system of Copernicus and Galileo. The placement of an individual depends on the level of goodness he or she achieved in life, although everyone experiences the fullness of God's love. Dante and Beatrice then rise into heaven. There the poet discovers that even some pagans—persons born before the time of Christ—abide in the heavenly realm because they accepted revelations from God. At the lowest level of Heaven is the Moon. Next come Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Stars (where St. Peter condemns corruption under Pope Boniface VIII) and the Primum Mobile (First Mover), the cause of time and of all movement in the universe. The highest level is the Empyrean, the abode of the Triune God, the Virgin Mary, other angels, and saints.
When Dante and Beatrice reach the Empyrean, St. Bernard comes forth to prepare Dante to look upon the resplendent beings within. Dante realizes here that knowledge of heaven comes only through the grace of God and deep meditation, not through theology textbooks. After St. Bernard prays to Mary on Dante's behalf, she begs the light of God to welcome
the prayer. When Dante glimpses that light, it overpowers him with a love so radiant that he cannot fathom its depth or even remember what he saw.
The following canto-by-canto outline of The Divine Comedy accompanies the Charles Eliot Norton translation of the epic, which is in the public domain and is available at Project Gutenberg. Click here to access the complete text.
CANTO I. Dante, astray in a wood, reaches the foot of a hill which he begins to ascend; he is hindered by three beasts; he turns back and is met by Virgil, who proposes to guide him into the eternal world.
CANTO I. Invocation to the Muses.—Dawn of Easter on the shore of Purgatory.—The Four Stars.—Cato.—The cleansing of Dante from the stains of Hell.
CANTO I. Proem [Introduction].—Invocation.—Beatrice and Dante ascend to the Sphere of Fire.— Beatrice explains the cause of their ascent.
The Divine Comedy presents life as a journey in which one man (representing all human beings) must overcome obstacles to achieve the ultimate goal, eternal bliss in the sight of God. Therefore—unlike epics such as The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf—The Divine Comedy focuses mainly on life as a spiritual journey. The obstacles the traveler must overcome are temptation and sin.
Salvation Through Repentance
Although confession of sins and penance will restore a human being to a state of grace, after he dies must he must purge himself of the stains sin leaves on his soul if he has not done so in his lifetime. This purgation in the afterlife takes place in purgatory.
When he was a child of nine, Dante met Beatrice Portinari and loved her from that moment on. Although he married another woman and she married another man, he continued to love her from afar and dedicated many poems to her. She died when she was only twenty-four. In The Divine Comedy, she appears to him in Canto XXX of Purgatory, wearing a
white veil and crown. Out of love for him, she rebukes him harshly until, in Canto XXXI, he confesses his guilt as a sinner. She then acts as his guide, leading him into Paradise.
The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of The Divine Comedy occurs in Purgatory when Beatrice causes Dante to admit guilt and repent. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in Paradise when Dante beholds the light of God.
How Dante's Epic Differs From Previous Epics
Earlier epics, such as Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey and the anonymous
English work Beowulf, focus on individual heroes in specific locales. The main stories in these epics generally borrow heavily from myths and legends handed down from generation to generation. The Divine
Comedy, on the other hand, gets its story mainly from the author's own imagination. In addition, it encompasses heroes and villains from everywhere, including the material and spiritual worlds.
Passages in The Divine Comedy reflect Dante's political and social views. Generally, he believed in separation of church and state, with the papacy reigning supreme in spiritual matters and the temporal ruler (an emperor or a king) reigning supreme in material matters. As a Roman Catholic, Dante supported the views of his church and accepted its teachings on life after death. However, he did not blindly support the church's leaders. In fact, he places seven popes in Hell in The Divine Comedy.
Definition of Comedy
Verse Format and Structure of the Poem
The Divine Comedy contains one hundred cantos (major divisions or "chapters" of the epic poem) written in terza rima, an Italian verse form invented by Dante. It consists of three-line stanzas in which line 2 of one stanza rhymes with lines 1 and 3 of the next stanza. The rhyme scheme progresses in the following pattern from the beginning of a canto: aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe, ghg, and so on. The following English translation of the first lines from the Divine Comedy—with the original Dante lines on the right—demonstrate the rhyme scheme:
.........Along the journey of our life half way.................Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
.........I found myself again in a dark wood.................mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
.........Wherein the straight road no longer lay.............ché la diritta via era smarrita.
.........Ah, tongue can never make it understood:........Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
.........It is so bitter death is hardly worse....................Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
.........English translation: Dale, Peter. The Divine Comedy. London: Anvil Press, 1996.
Significance of the Number 3
Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in honor of the three Persons who make up the one God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus, throughout the poem, the number 3 has special significance. Consider that the poem has the following:
Allusions to the Trojan War
Dante alludes or refers to the Trojan War in The Divine Comedy. Following is a brief account of the cause and outcome of the war.
In the ancient Mediterranean world of the second millennium BC, feminine beauty reaches its zenith in Helen, wife of Menelaus, the king of the Grecian state of Sparta. Her wondrous face and body are without flaw. She is perfect. Even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, admires her. One day, Aphrodite competes with other goddesses in a beauty contest in which the winner is to receive a golden apple. The judge is a young Trojan named Paris. Aphrodite tells him that if he selects her she will award him the most ravishing woman in the world. After Paris chooses Aphrodite, she tells him about Helen, who lives in Greece with her husband, Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Forthwith, Paris goes to Greece, woos Helen, and absconds with her to Troy, a walled city in Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey).
The elopement of Helen and Paris is an affront to all the Greeks. How dare an upstart Trojan invade their land! How dare he steal the wife of one of their kings! Which Greek family would be next to fall victim to a Trojan machination? Infuriated, King Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, king of the state of Mycenae, assemble a mighty army of brother Greeks who include the finest warriors in the land. Together, they cross the sea in one thousand ships to make war against Troy and win back their pride—and Helen.
After years of fighting, the greatest of the Greek warriors, Achilles, slays the greatest of the Trojan warriors, Hector. However, the Trojan warriors fight on. One of the Greek leaders—Odysseus, the king of Ithaca—then devises a plan to end the conflict. He suggests that the Greeks construct a great wooden horse as a weapon of war. A Greek named Epeus supervises its construction. Afterward, a Greek with a persuasive tongue deceives the Trojans into believing that their foes have wearied of the war and that the giant horse, which stands at the gates of Troy, is a parting gift. Seeing no Greeks on the battlefield, the Trojans move the horse into the city. At night, Greek soldiers hiding inside the belly of the horse drop down and open the gates of the city for Greek armies hiding outside. The Greeks pour into the city and overwhelm the Trojans, wreaking slaughter and destruction and taking women as captives.
Free Texts in Italian and English
.......The following reliable sites post Dante's epic. Be aware that the quality and readability of English translations vary from book to book, depending on the skill of the translator.
Bartleby.com, Harvard Classics: English translation in blank verse
Digital Dante: English translation and the original Italian poem
Everypoet.com: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Translation
MediaSoft: Original Italian poem
State University of New York at Stony Brook: James Finn Cotter Translation
Project Gutenberg, Volume 1, Inferno: English translation of Volume 1 by Charles Eliot Norton
Project Gutenberg, Volume 2, Purgatorio: English translation of Volume 2 by Charles Eliot Norton
Project Gutenberg, Volume 3, Paradiso: English translation of Volume 3 by Charles Eliot Norton
Oliver & Boyd, Publishers, Volume 1, Inferno: S. Fowler Wright Translation
Oliver & Boyd, Publishers, Volume 2, Purgatorio: S. Fowler Wright Translation
Oliver & Boyd, Publishers, Volume 3, Paradiso: S. Fowler Wright Translation
Audio Version of Inferno in Italian: Actor Vittorio Gassman reads The Inferno (Hell) in Italian while the listener sees the words.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
The author of The Divine Comedy was Dante Alighieri, Italy's greatest poet, who was born to a middle-class family in Florence in 1265. After his mother died when he was an adolescent, his father remarried and had two more children, a boy and a girl. Dante began writing poetry when he was a teenager, One of his mentors was the poet Vito Cavalcanti, who exerted a strong influence on Dante. Before beginning work on The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote two major works, La Vita Nuova (The New Life) and Il Convivio (The Banquet), both of which included verse and prose. In the latter work, he urged the use of vernacular Italian instead of classical Latin in the composition of literary works. After becoming involved in rivalries between Florentine politicians and between Vatican and secular authorities vying for power, Dante was banished from Florence. In exile, he wrote The Divine Comedy, incorporating in it commentary on the various factions competing for political control. He wrote it in the Italian Tuscan dialect that favors a familiar, conversational style, thus breaking with the tradition that serious literary works had to be written in Latin and thereby helping to establish Italian as the language of literature. He died in Ravenna, Italy, in 1321.
Books, Videos, and Audio Media at Amazon.com
Illustrations for The Divine Comedy: 136 Plates of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory
The Divine Comedy: Charles H. Sisson, Translatorr..
The Divine Comedy: Mark Musa, Translatorr..
The Divine Comedy (Large Print): Henry W. Longfellow, Translatorr..
The Divine Comedy (VHS)..
Botticelli: Picture Cycle for The Divine Comedy: .
Cambridge Companion to Dante: Study Guide
Modern Reader's Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy: Study Guide
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