The Divine Comedy is an epic poem on a vast scale, told by Dante himself in first-person point of view. The Divine Comedy is also an allegory, a work in which characters, objects, and events have figurative as well as literal meanings. For example, in The Divine Comedy, Virgil symbolizes human reason, and Beatrice stands for faith and supernatural truth. The three beasts Dante encounters in Canto 1 represent sin; various personages in other cantos symbolize specific types of sin, such as envy, sloth, gluttony, and lust. Some allegorical characters, objects, or events symbolize several things at the same time.
The Divine Comedy was probably written between 1306 and 1321, although Dante may have begun writing the poem as early as 1300. Most of the poem was written between 1315 and 1321. The poem won a large audience even though copies of it had to be handwritten. (The printing press had not yet been invented.) The Divine Comedy ranks as one of the great literary masterpieces of all time alongside the epics of Homer and Virgil and the greatest plays of Shakespeare.
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 humanreason. 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..
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.
Among the terrace dwellers are excommunicants who repented before they died, a lazy Florentine who postponed doing good works most of his life, and monarchs who neglected their duties. As Dante and Virgil continue upward, they also meet the proud, the envious, the avaricious, the wasteful, and the lustful. Farther up the mountain, they can gaze across the River Lethe and see the Earthly Paradise, signaling it is time for Virgil to leave and return to his abode, the First Circle of the heathens.
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.