Dante’s crowning achievement, one of the most important works in Western literature and undisputedly the most important poetic text of the European Middle Ages, is the great poem he calls his Comedy, or Commedia (ca. 1307–1321). This seems an odd title for most modern readers, who see little humor in the poem. But there are two reasons Dante calls the poem a comedy. The first, as explained by Benvenuto Rambaldi da Imola, one of the early Italian commentators on the poem, is that the Comedy (composed in Italian rather than Latin) is written in a vernacular language—an assertion that gains support from Dante’s own comments in Book 2 of De vulgari eloquentia, where he defines comedy in terms of style and diction. The other reason for the title has more to do with the poem’s narrative pattern: Since the poem begins in sorrow (the dark wood of sin) and ends in joy (the vision of God), one can easily argue that the poem’s movement parallels the plot of a comedy. Commentators in the 14th century, including Dante’s disciple Giovanni Boccaccio, began calling the Comedy “Divine” both because of its sacred subject matter and because of its literary significance.
Most scholars believe that Dante began composing the Comedy in 1306 or 1307, a few years after his exile from Florence. Since the subject matter of the poem is the journey of a lost pilgrim, who must trek through the three realms of the afterlife on a journey back to his true home, it could be argued that the state of the pilgrim Dante parallels that of the exiled poet. The journey is of course also an allegory of the soul’s journey to God. Thus the three realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven might be interpreted as three steps in the soul’s redemption, Hell demonstrating the recognition of sin, Purgatory the expiation of sin, and Paradise the holy living that follows. This sequence reflects the three-step process of the sacrament of penance, which involves confession, penance, and absolution, portrayed as the pilgrim Dante moves through the inferno (which suggests prevenient grace, or the conviction of sin), the purgatorio (justifying grace, or the assurance of forgiveness), and the paradiso (sanctifying grace, or the movement toward holy living).
This overall three-part organization is one aspect of a remarkably detailed symbolic structure that stands as one of the noteworthy aspects of the Comedy. As a Gothic cathedral does, the Comedy reflects in its structure the perfect harmony of God’s creation and, at the same time, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The organization of the poem makes extensive use of the numbers 3 (reflecting the Trinity) and 1 (reflecting God’s essential unity). There are the three main sections of the poem (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) called canticles (or cantiche in Italian, singular cantica). Each canticle contains 33 chapters, or cantos, but the Inferno has one additional canto that introduces the entire poem, making the total number of cantos the perfect number 100. The verse form that Dante created specifically for his poem is called terza rima, rhyming aba bcb cdc and so forth. The tercets (or three-line stanzas) suggest the Trinity and are interlocked, suggesting unity as well. Dante uses the standard Italian hendecasyllabic (or 11-syllable) line, so that each tercet contains 33 syllables—the same as the number of cantos appearing in each canticle and, probably not coincidentally, the age of Christ at the time of his crucifixion.
The number 9 (3 times 3) is also significant in the poem’s structure. Dante divides his Inferno into nine circles and follows standard medieval astronomy by including nine spheres in his Heaven. Purgatory contains seven terraces corresponding to the seven deadly sins, plus an Ante-Purgatory (for those who must wait before climbing the peak), and the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain. Furthermore, the nine sections of each canticle are arranged into larger three-part structures: In the Inferno, the sins are grouped into three kinds—incontinence, violence, and malicious fraud, represented symbolically by the three beasts (the she-wolf, lion, and leopard) of Canto 1. Purgatory, as Dante’s guide Virgil explains in Canto 17 of that text, is structured according to three kinds of defects in love: Love, which motivates all human actions, even sin, can be misdirected, insufficient, or perverted, and these defects provide the bases for the organization of Purgatory’s terraces. Even in Paradise the souls of the blessed are arranged according to their own capacities for experiencing God’s grace, and thus their vision might be limited or incomplete, as is the case of the souls in the lower spheres; it might be attained through the cardinal virtues; or it might be the perfect vision of the angels.
Although it will be discussed in some detail in the commentary that follows, it seems useful to consider briefly Dante’s use of allegory here at the outset. On one level the events and characters of the Comedy are in a sense literal or historical. Dante is careful to set the events in real time: His journey begins on Good Friday in the year 1300, and he arrives on the shores of Purgatory on the morning of Easter Sunday of that year. He spends three nights on Mount Purgatory and then ascends into Heaven, from which he returns in the end to his life in Florence. Setting his poem in his own recent past means, of course, that Dante can only include in his afterlife the souls of people who had died before April 1300, but it also enables Dante to place prophetic utterances into the mouths of some of the characters the pilgrim meets. Thus he is able to tell the story of his own exile as well as “predict” the coming of the emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg.
Hell is conceived as a funnel-shaped cavern descending to the center of the earth, and Purgatory as a mountain emerging from the ocean of the Southern Hemisphere—a mountain formed from the land displaced when Lucifer’s fall from Heaven created the great pit of Hell. Heaven consists of the nine spheres identified by medieval astronomers—the seven planets, the fixed stars, and the Primum Mobile or First Mover. This is conventional medieval geography and cosmography. Further Dante depicts himself as a historical figure, ultimately banned from Florence for political reasons. Beatrice is the beautiful Beatrice Portinari, the unattainable beloved of Dante’s earlier love poetry whose death he describes in the Vita Nuova. Virgil is the classical Roman poet of the Aeneid, the literary genius whose text glorified and idealized the destiny of the Roman Empire and Dante’s poetic idol. The souls Dante meets in the afterlife—from Ciacco or Vanni Fucci in the Inferno to Forese Donati in Purgatory or his own ancestor Cacciaguida in Heaven—are literal historical persons, often with the same political virtues and vices that they possessed in life. At the same time, however, the poem recounts the journey of the soul of everyman, traveling toward moral perfection and ultimate salvation. Dante the pilgrim, as distinct from the historical Dante the poet, is the personification of the human soul. Beatrice, who sends Virgil to guide Dante on his way, represents divine grace and, in her role as Dante’s guide through Heaven, divine wisdom as well. Virgil represents human reason, the faculty by which human beings may recognize sin and move toward faith—but since salvation can be attained only through grace, it is Beatrice, not Virgil, who must guide Dante into Heaven. Further the individual characters Dante meets on his journey transcend their own historical selves and become representatives of their own sins or virtues.
The complexity of Dante’s allegory is discussed in the controversial “Letter to Can Grande” (Epistle 13), a lengthy introduction purported to have been sent by Dante to his patron Cangrande I della Scala of Verona along with a copy of the Paradiso. While some scholars doubt its authenticity, others accept the letter and its assertion that the Comedy should be read in the same way that scholars interpreted the Bible, so that the reader of the Comedy should perceive three different allegorical senses in addition to the historical sense. Thus it is possible to read The Divine Comedy in a number of ways: If one focuses on the literal and historical characters, the Comedy can be read as a political statement reinforcing Dante’s arguments in De Monarchia about the necessity of a single world emperor in Rome to check the secular power of popes like Pope Boniface VIII, whose machinations had led to Dante’s exile. On the moral level of the allegory, however, the Comedy demonstrates the development of the pilgrim everyman from a very limited spiritual understanding in the beginning to a true confirmation to the will of God by the end. On a typological level the pilgrim’s moral development mirrors the salvation history revealed in the Scriptures.
The Comedy made Dante a celebrity in Italy from the time of the first appearance of the Inferno, which was in circulation by 1314. There were 12 early commentaries on the poem that attest to its enormous popularity in the 14th century, and Giovanni Boccaccio enhanced the poem’s reputation through his public lectures on the Comedy presented in Florence in 1373–74. Poets from Francesco Petrarch to Chaucer, to Longfellow and T. S. Eliot, have been inspired by Dante’s text, which has been translated into dozens of languages. More than 400 editions of the poem have appeared in Italy since the 15th century. Several new translations of the poem have appeared in English in the past 20 years (quotations in the following commentary are drawn from Mark Musa’s translation). Clearly the poem has spoken to readers all over the world for hundreds of years, and current readers still find much to admire in the poem through the various contemporary editions.
MAJOR CHARACTERS IN THE COMMEDIA
Dante the Pilgrim
Dante uses a first-person narrator in the poem, much as medieval poets did in what were called “dream-vision poems”—poems that purported to relate an enigmatic dream whose symbols needed interpretation by the reader. Dante’s poem is no dream vision—he presents it as the record of an actual event—but as the dream vision did, the Comedy’s allegory challenged the reader to unlock its various levels of meaning. Thus the first-person narrator is not to be regarded as the historical Dante Alighieri, but a fictionalized version of the poet who also becomes an allegorical figure.
To be sure the character of Dante the pilgrim is in many ways identical to Dante the poet. He is the Dante who would in 1302 suffer unjust exile from his home city of Florence, and many of the characters, with the foreknowledge of departed souls, make numerous predictions about his future exile, beginning with Ciacco’s clouded prophecy in Canto 6 of the Inferno and culminating with Cacciaguida’s straightforward warning in Canto 17 of the Paradiso. That we are dealing with the influential poet Dante is also clear in Purgatorio 24, when the Luccan poet Bonagiunta praises Dante for his “sweet new style” (Dolce Stil Novo). His poetic vocation is also foregrounded in Cacciaguida’s charge to him in Paradiso 17 to write all he has seen and hold nothing back. Further, the protagonist is clearly the historical Dante, citizen of Florence, in his political beliefs—his looking forward to a world emperor to curb the secular power of the papacy, his enmity with Ghibellines like Farinata in Inferno 10 or the Black Guelphs whom he condemns in Paradiso 15. Finally the character is also Dante the human lover in what he reveals about his love for Beatrice, the woman he had loved and whose death he writes of in the Vita nuova—a text with which he seems to have expected his readers to have been familiar. Thus it is Beatrice who sends Virgil to save the protagonist, and it is the thought of actually seeing Beatrice again that sees Dante through his greatest fear—the ring of fire that bars the entrance into Paradise (Purgatorio 27). It is Beatrice he meets in the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory, a heavenly Beatrice who calls him by name—“Dante”— when she sees him in Purgatorio 30, l. 55.
It is clear, however, that the protagonist of the poem cannot literally be the historical Dante— and not only because the historical Dante never actually visited the three realms of the afterlife. Dante the pilgrim is both the individual fictionalized depiction of the poet, and at the same time the representative of human beings in general. His wandering into the dark wood of sin in the first canto and his desire to overcome his sin and find his way to God are universal human traits, and so the pilgrim Dante becomes, allegorically, an Everyman figure in the poem. As must all human beings, according to Dante’s medieval Christian viewpoint, the pilgrim must first recognize the nature of sin (as he does in the Inferno), make satisfaction for his sin (as he does in the Purgatorio), and increase in wisdom, joy, and love through holy living (as he does in the Paradiso). In this way the pilgrim Dante is a dynamic character, moving from sin to salvation, from ignorance to wisdom, from despair to joy, through his journey toward God.
As is true of medieval allegory in general, the character of Dante the pilgrim does not emerge as a fully rounded, multifaceted individual, as might be expected of a more modern protagonist in the realistic tradition. We know that he is 35 years old at the beginning of his journey, but even that is a symbolic age, midway through the journey of life, a turning point for the character to take a new direction and make a new start. As Everyman he displays the kinds of fears that anyone would show in, for example, entering Hell, or riding on the back of the monster Geryon in Inferno 17. He often weeps or shows pity for the sufferings of sinners in Hell (notably Francesca da Rimini in Inferno 5), until his guide, Virgil, convinces him that to do so is to question God’s justice. He also displays a certain vanity when he is welcomed among the great poets of antiquity in Inferno 4, and righteous anger when he sees Pope Nicholas among the simonists in Inferno 19. As he moves through Purgatory, it is no surprise (having seen these traits in Hell) that the pilgrim expects to spend some time on the terraces of pride, anger, and lust when he returns upon his death to this part of the afterlife. Later he displays a very human eagerness to see again his beloved Beatrice after 10 years, and a very human humiliation when she chides him at their first meeting in Purgatorio 30. In Paradise the pilgrim’s thirst for knowledge and eagerness to learn all he can about the workings of the universe also are no surprise. Finally the pilgrim is not presented with great particularity, but is broadly defined by traits that may seem appropriate for a figure representing Everyman.
The pilgrim’s reactions, however, should not generally be taken as reflecting those of Dante the poet, particularly in the Inferno. When the pilgrim swoons at Francesca’s story of her love affair or weeps at the fate of his old mentor BRUNETTO LATINI among the sodomites (Inferno 15), the reader must remember that Dante the poet has placed Francesca and Brunetto in Hell. The pilgrim’s reactions, therefore, are inappropriate, but a part of the process he is going through, learning to recognize sin. On another level these reactions are part of a pattern in which the pilgrim Dante is shown participating in the various sins: Sometimes he participates through sympathy, sometimes through displaying the sin itself, as when he expresses his anger at Filippo Argenti (Inferno 8), or when he breaks his word to Friar Alberigo (Inferno 33). Even his pride at joining the group of classical poets in Inferno 4 is misguided, since these poets are not in Heaven, and to take pride in his position among them would be to trust in human intellect rather than divine guidance for salvation—and to end in Limbo rather than Paradise. These actions, too, can be read as part of the pilgrim’s education: He is learning to see the potential of all sins within himself, and thus the need for contrition and penance as demonstrated throughout the Purgatorio.
Remarkably at the end of the Paradiso Dante the pilgrim and Dante the poet merge again, as Dante presents himself no longer as a character completing his pilgrimage and experiencing a vision of God, but as a poet, sitting in his study some time after his return from Paradise, trying with difficulty to remember the experience (Paradiso 33, ll. 60–84), and praying for the ability to put what he could remember into words. This final vision, with Dante’s suggestion that this fiction is indeed no fiction, once more conflates pilgrim and poet and serves the function of conferring on the poet the authority of one who, as the pilgrim, had actually experienced this journey.
For Dante Virgil was the most important poet of antiquity, his poetry the model of classical style and intellectual expression. He thus makes Virgil his guide through both The Inferno and the Purgatorio even though, as a pagan, Virgil cannot enter Paradise and must turn back when the pilgrim Dante reaches the Garden of Eden at the peak of Mount Purgatory.
Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 B.C.E.) was author of the greatest Latin epic poem, the Aeneid, the story of the Trojan Aeneas and his escape from burning Troy, chronicling his legendary adventures after the Trojan War and culminating in his settlement in Italy, where his descendants founded the city of Rome. In one sense Virgil is a guide for Dante the poet, who looks at Virgil’s epic style and imitates it at times—particularly in his use of epic similes—throughout his own great poem. There are literally hundreds of allusions to or echoes of Virgilian lines in the lines of the Comedy. Dante calls Virgil’s epic a “tragedy” (Inferno 20, l. 113) shortly before referring to his own poem as a “comedy” (Inferno 21, l. 2), suggesting a parallel but contrasting relationship between the two great poems.
It is a short step from Virgil, the author’s poetic guide, to Virgil, the character’s physical guide. Dante saw Virgil as an appropriate guide since, in Book 6 of his Aeneid, Virgil had described Aeneas’s journey into Hades and vision of the afterlife. To this Dante adds a myth of his own making, that Virgil had been summoned by the witch Erichto to fetch a spirit for her from the lowest depths of Hell (Inferno 9, ll. 22–30). Thus Virgil knows his way. Why Dante should choose a pagan Roman poet to guide him through the Christian afterlife is a difficult question to answer, but in part it must certainly spring from Virgil’s famous Fourth Eclogue, a poem generally read in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. Thus Virgil was often seen as a great prophet ironically unaware of the significance of his own prophesies.
Most readers through the years have interpreted Virgil allegorically as human Reason. Thus he is able to guide the pilgrim Everyman through the recognition of sin in the Inferno and even contrition for sin in the Purgatorio but cannot, unaided by revelation, guide the soul of Everyman to salvation. As Reason Virgil is generally shown to be knowledgeable, wise, moderate, and restrained (much like Aeneas, the stoic hero of his own epic). In Hell his knowledge is unfaltering—he knows how to get past the three-headed dog Cerberus in Inferno 6 and the threatening Minotaur in Inferno 12 and knows how to climb down the legs of Satan to move out of Hell in Inferno 34. Never having been in Purgatory, he must work his way through that realm just as his pilgrim ward must, yet his wisdom enables him to discourse on, for example, difficult concepts such as the nature of sin and love in Purgatorio 17. But even here he admits that his definition of love includes only the aspects of love that reason can understand—Dante must wait for Beatrice to explain love as it pertains to faith (Purgatorio 18, ll. 46–48). Since he represents Reason unaided by revelation, Virgil can guide Dante no farther than the peak of Mount Purgatory. Beatrice must take over there to guide the pilgrim the rest of the way.
It would be a mistake, though, to see Virgil as nothing more than the empty allegorical figure of Reason. As Dante’s guide and mentor, Virgil displays some very human traits. As a teacher, he constantly reinforces lessons that he expects Dante the pilgrim to learn from his encounters in Hell and Purgatory. He shows impatience with his pupil when the pilgrim continues to express sympathy for the damned, and sometimes even an angry frustration when he sees the pilgrim as easily distracted by the sinful shades, as he is by Master Adam and Sinon the Greek in Inferno 30. But he also acts as a father figure for the pilgrim: He is careful to protect his charge from any hostile threats—he tells Dante to hide from the devils in the bolgia (or ditch) of the grafters, for instance (Inferno 21), seeing a special danger to the pilgrim there. He rides with the pilgrim on the back of the monster Geryon, placing himself between the pilgrim and the monster’s venomous tail. At one point he even picks up the pilgrim and carries him, when he sees the need to escape quickly from the devils of the grafters’ bolgia in Inferno 23.
Virgil is at his most human when he is thwarted or frustrated. Before the gates of Dis in Canto 9, he and the pilgrim are barred from entering the city—for the first time his claim of divine sanction for his journey falls on deaf ears. Virgil is clearly worried and confused, though he tries to reassure the pilgrim, until the heavenly messenger arrives to open the gates. Later he seems quite put out that the devil Malacoda lied to him about the bridge over the sixth bolgia, and angry that he has fallen for the lie.
Virgil’s major weakness, of course, is that he is damned. He is an inhabitant of Limbo, the upper circle of Hell reserved for those who, though virtuous, did not believe in Christ. Despite his journey through Purgatory and his witnessing of the workings of contrition and penance leading to salvation, Virgil has not received the divine grace he would need to acquire a saving faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes all too clear when Dante introduces in Purgatorio 22 the character of Publicus Papinus Statius, the Latin author of the Thebaid and poetic disciple of Virgil. Statius declares that he was saved through reading Virgil’s works, having found faith in Christ through reading the Fourth Eclogue. Thus Virgil is ultimately pictured as a tragic figure, one who (as in the case of Dante the pilgrim himself) is able to lead others to salvation but who remains blind to the truth of revelation himself.
Perhaps the most poignant section of the entire Comedy is the point at which Dante the pilgrim, having made his way to the Earthly Paradise and finally gained sight of his beloved Beatrice, turns to speak of her to Virgil and finds his guide has disappeared (Purgatorio 30, ll. 49–54). As Virgil had done so often before, Beatrice must check the pilgrim, this time for mourning the loss of Virgil. It is Dante’s farewell to the secular world of intellect. Reason without revelation is far too limited and must be transcended in the poem as well as in life. Virgil must return to Limbo.
The figure of Beatrice is perhaps the most complex image in the Divine Comedy. On the literal level she is, of course, that same Beatrice whom Dante describes as his beloved lady in the Vita Nuova. According to that text it was May Day, 1274, when the nine-year-old Dante first met Bici Portinari, the daughter of his neighbor Folco, and fell in love with her, calling her Beatrice, or “bringer of blessings.” He began writing poems to her in about 1283 and continued to love her as an ideal even after her marriage to the banker Simone De’ Bardi in 1287. It was to write praises of her as an angelic creature that Dante invented a new style of poetry in the canzone (lyric poem) Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore (“Ladies who have intelligence of love”). Even after her death on June 8, 1290, Dante seems to have continued to view Beatrice as an ideal, now returned to her native heavenly element. At the end of the Vita nuova Dante vows not to write of Beatrice again until he can write of her what has never been written before about any other woman. This promise is fulfilled in the Comedy.
Beatrice’s chief role in the Comedy is to act as Dante’s guide from the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory into the highest Heaven. Before this, however, she serves as the motive and impetus for the pilgrim Dante’s whole journey, for it is she, at the urging of Dante’s patron saint, Saint Lucy (inspired by the Virgin Mary), who visits Virgil in Limbo and asks him to go to Dante and be his guide through Hell and Purgatory (Inferno 2, ll. 52–118). It is Virgil’s mention of Beatrice that moves the pilgrim Dante to travel forward on his journey, and his continued references to her inspire the pilgrim to continue when his will seems to be flagging, as in Purgatorio 27, when he must go through the ring of fire. On the literal level, of course, Beatrice is the earthly woman, seeing one who loved her lost and threatened and sending help for pity of him. Allegorically, however, Beatrice here suggests divine grace, without which, according to Scholastic philosophers, one could not begin to seek salvation. The love that inspires Beatrice to act can also, allegorically, suggest spiritual love. Thus here and generally throughout the Comedy Beatrice represents God’s grace and love. The fact that the pagan Virgil recognizes her significance implies another meaning for Beatrice. Recalling that she leaves her seat in Heaven beside Rachel (who represents the contemplative life), some scholars have suggested that for Virgil Beatrice represents Lady Philosophy as she appeared to Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy.
This last suggestion gathers strength from Beatrice’s role in the Paradiso. Here she is Dante’s guide through the heavenly spheres, and her function is to answer his many questions about the cosmos and about theology. In this role she clearly allegorically represents Divine Wisdom. However, the fact that Beatrice becomes more radiant and beautiful each step they take closer to God and the Empyrean Heaven reinforces her allegorical role as Divine Love, which delights more the nearer one draws to God himself.
This role as Divine Wisdom reinforces Beatrice’s most striking appearance in the Comedy, in the Earthly Paradise at the end of the Purgatorio. Here she descends from Heaven in a mystic chariot, clothed in white, green, and red (the colors of the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and love). Her face is veiled, as she withholds from the pilgrim the sight of her eyes and smile, the chief marks of her beauty that he had so praised in his poems to her earthly incarnation. Those beauties allegorically represent God’s love, which here is veiled in part because it will blind the pilgrim when he finally does see it, and in part because this is a scene of judgment. At this point Beatrice allegorically represents Christ himself: As she has appeared to judge the individual soul of the pilgrim, so Christ will judge all humankind on Judgment Day.
The role of Beatrice as allegorical Christ figure should be no surprise. If she does indeed represent Divine Wisdom, it should be remembered that in the Jewish “Wisdom” tradition, Wisdom was pictured as female and said to have been with God from the beginning of creation. That figure of Wisdom was conflated with the Greek concept of logos in the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, so that logos/Wisdom became the coeternal Second Person of the Trinity. In Dante’s story Beatrice had descended into Limbo in order to save the pilgrim, just as Christ had descended into Limbo to save all the imprisoned faithful from the beginning of time. Her death had led Dante to thoughts of Heaven, just as Christ’s death had all Christians. And here in Canto 30 of the Purgatorio Beatrice has descended again, like the Son of Man appearing in glory to judge the living and the dead on the last day. She forces Dante to account for the sins of his life, which chiefly involved his desertion of her memory to pursue other earthly goods—another woman, in fact, as well as the worldly knowledge that philosophy could give him. While it is certainly true that Beatrice the literal woman seems to be present at this point, chiding her lover for being unfaithful to her memory, she is at the same time Christ himself, calling the sinner to account for his actions before finally taking him into Heaven and ultimate salvation.
Finally Beatrice becomes again the literal soul of the earthly Bice Portinari, when she turns her charge over to his final guide, Saint Bernard, in Canto 31 of the Paradiso. Having led the pilgrim this far, she returns finally to her place in the Heavenly Rose, beside Rachel, and after a last look at her former lover, turns her eyes eternally to God, with the implication that he should follow suit.