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The Divine Comedy by Dante: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Introduction to ''The…
  • 0:50 Inferno
  • 2:43 Purgatorio
  • 3:47 Paradiso
  • 5:12 Analysis
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

In this lesson we will explore Dante's epic poem, The Divine Comedy (circa 1308), in which the character Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Introduction

Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy is a famous Medieval Italian epic poem depicting the realms of the afterlife. Dante (who was born in 1265) wrote The Divine Comedy somewhere between 1308 and his death in 1321, while he was in exile from his hometown of Florence, Italy, which had been enduring civil war.

The Divine Comedy is divided into three separate volumes, each containing 33 cantos (or chapters). These volumes are Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Dante is both the author and the central character of this trilogy. He travels through all of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to make his way back to God, meeting several characters from history and literature on his way.

Fresco of Dante and The Divine Comedy, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465
Fresco of Dante and The Divine Comedy

Inferno

As an exile, the poet Dante felt rather lost in his life; so, at the beginning of Inferno, the character Dante is likewise lost both physically and spiritually. The ancient Roman poet Virgil (a hero of Dante's) appears in the poem to guide Dante through Hell in an effort to save Dante's soul. Hell exists in the middle of the Earth and is made up of nine circles.

The sinners in Hell have never repented while on Earth. They suffer the consequences of the sins they committed during life, which are turned back on them, a concept called contrapasso. For example, canto 20 depicts circle eight, where sorcerers who used dark magic to see forward into the future now have their heads painfully turned backwards for all eternity.

Hell is structured like an upside down cone, with each descending circle becoming smaller and containing more depraved souls and more intense suffering. Right outside the gates of Hell are those who neither accepted nor rejected God.

Within the gates of Hell, the first circle holds the unbaptized and the pagans born before Christ (such as Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil himself). The other circles are defined by the major sin committed by those condemned to that circle: lust (circle two), gluttony (circle three), greed (circle four), and wrath and depression (circle five). The final circles make up the infernal city called Dis, with circle six containing heretics, circle seven containing those who committed violence, circle 8 containing deceivers, and circle nine containing those who betrayed trust. At the deepest region of circle nine, a three-faced Satan, stuck in a frozen lake, chews on the worst betrayers of all time: Judas (who betrayed Jesus), and Brutus and Cassius (both of whom betrayed Julius Ceasar).

1890 engraving by Gustave Dore of Canto 34 depicting Satan frozen in Hell
Engraving of Satan frozen in Hell by Gustave Dore

Purgatorio

After the harrowing experience in Hell, Dante and Virgil climb out and enter Purgatory, where penitent souls endure punishment in order to fully purge themselves of sin before entering Heaven. Purgatory is shaped like a mountain and is divided into seven different levels, associated with the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust.

Contrapasso still exists to some extent; for example, those who struggled with the flames of lust on Earth literally endure a purging fire in Purgatory. But, unlike the souls in Hell, these souls embrace their punishment because it is making them holy. They sing and praise God in the midst of their punishment, and implore Dante to ask people on Earth to pray for their souls. Also unlike the souls in Hell, they are free to move between the seven levels as they purify themselves. Beyond the seventh level at the top of the mountain is the earthly paradise of Eden, where Virgil disappears and is replaced by Dante's next guide.

Paradiso

As a pagan, Virgil cannot enter Heaven, so he is replaced by the next guide, Beatrice, who takes Dante from Purgatory to Heaven. Beatrice was Dante's real-life love interest and muse for much of his poetry, so it is fitting that she acts as Dante's guide to the divine. She also seems to be the main agent of his salvation here, so critics have long noted how Beatrice acts as a sort of Christ figure for Dante. At times, the poem seems to be as much about Dante's praise of Beatrice as it is about his journey to God.

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