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The Divine Comedy
By Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
A Study Guide
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Original Title
Plot Summary
Canto-by-Canto Outline
Type of Work
Uniqueness of the Work
Dante's Political Views
Definition of Comedy
Verse Format
Significance of No. 3
Year Completed
Study Questions
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2012

Type of Work
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. 

Year Completed

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.

Original Title
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 epic The 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 and The 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..

Plot Summary
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.

Hell (Inferno)

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. 

Purgatory (Purgatorio)

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. 

Heaven (Paradiso)

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. 

Canto-by-Canto Outline

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.

Hell (Inferno)

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 II. Dante, doubtful of his own powers, is discouraged at the outset.—Virgil cheers him by telling him that he has been sent to his aid by a blessed Spirit from Heaven.—Dante casts off fear, and the poets proceed.
CANTO III. The gate of Hell. Virgil leads Dante in.—The punishment of the neither good nor bad.—Acheron, and the sinners on its bank.—Charon.—Earthquake.—Dante swoons.
CANTO IV. The further side of Acheron.—Virgil leads Dante into Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, containing the spirits of those  who lived virtuously but without Christianity.—Greeting of Virgil by his fellow poets.—They enter a castle, where are the shades of ancient worthies.—Virgil and Dante depart.
CANTO V. The Second Circle: Carnal sinners.—Minos.—Shades renowned of old.—Francesca da Rimini.
CANTO VI. The Third Circle: the Gluttonous.—Cerberus.—Ciacco. 
CANTO VII. The Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and the Prodigal.— Pluto.—Fortune.—The Styx.—The Fifth Circle: the Wrathful and the Sullen.
CANTO VIII. The Fifth Circle.—Phlegyas and his boat.—Passage of the Styx.—Filippo Argenti.—The City of Dis.—The demons refuse entrance to the poets.
CANTO IX. The City of Dis.—Eriehtho.—The Three Furies.—The Heavenly Messenger.—The Sixth Circle: Heresiarchs.
CANTO X. The Sixth Circle: Heresiarchs.—Farinata degli Uberti.— Cavalcante Cavalcanti.—Frederick II.
CANTO XI. The Sixth Circle: Heretics.—Tomb of Pope Anastasius.— Discourse of Virgil on the divisions of the lower Hell.
CANTO XII. First round of the Seventh Circle: those who do violence to others.—Tyrants and Homicides.—The Minotaur.—The Centaurs.—Chiron.—Nessus.—The River of Boiling Blood, and the Sinners in it.
CANTO XIII. Second round of the Seventh Circle: those who have done violence to themselves and to their goods.—The Wood of Self-murderers.—The Harpies.—Pier della Vigne.—Lano of Siena and others.
CANTO XIV. Third round of the Seventh Circle those who have done violence to God.—The Burning Sand.—Capaneus.—Figure of the Old Man in Crete.—The Rivers of Hell.
CANTO XV. Third round of the Seventh Circle: those who have done violence to Nature.—Brunetto Latini.—Prophecies of misfortune to Dante.
CANTO XVI. Third round of the Seventh Circle: those who have done violence to Nature.—Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci.—The roar of Phlegethon as it pours downward.— The cord thrown into the abyss.
CANTO XVII. Third round of the Seventh Circle: those who have done violence to Art.—Geryon.—The Usurers.—Descent to the Eighth Circle.
CANTO XVIII. Eighth Circle: the first pit: Panders and Seducers.— Venedico Caccianimico.—Jason.—Second pit: false flatterers.— Alessio Interminei.—Thais.
CANTO XIX. Eighth Circle: third pit: Simonists.—Pope Nicholas III.
CANTO XX. Eighth Circle: fourth pit: Diviners, Soothsayers, and Magicians.— Amphiaraus.— Tiresias.— Aruns.—Manto.—Eurypylus.— Michael Scott.—Asolente.
CANTO XXI. Eighth Circle: fifth pit: Barrators.—A magistrate of Lucca.—The Malebranche.—Parley with them.
CANTO XXII. Eighth Circle: fifth pit: Barrators.—Ciampolo of Navarre.—Brother Gomita.—Michael Zanche.—Fray of the Malebranche.
CANTO XXIII. Eighth Circle. Escape from the fifth pit.—The sixth pit: Hypocrites.—The Jovial Friars.—Caiaphas.—Annas.—Frate Catalano.
CANTO XXIV. Eighth Circle. The poets climb from the sixth pit.— Seventh pit: Fraudulent Thieves.—Vanni Fucci.—Prophecy of calamity to Dante.
CANTO XXV. Eighth Circle: seventh pit: Fraudulent Thieves.— Cacus.—Agnello Brunellesehi and others.
CANTO XXVI. Eighth Circle: eighth pit: Fraudulent Counsellors.— Ulysses and Diomed.
CANTO XXVII. Eighth Circle: eighth pit: Fraudulent Counsellors.— Guido da Montefeltro.
CANTO XXVIII. Eighth Circle: ninth pit: Sowers of discord and schism.—Mahomet and Ali.—Fra Dolcino.—Pier da Medicina.— Curio.—Mosca.—Bertran de Born.
CANTO XXIX. Eighth Circle: ninth pit.—Geri del Bello.—Tenth pit: Falsifiers of all sorts.—Griffolino of Mezzo.—Capocchio.
CANTO XXX. Eighth Circle: tenth pit: Falsifiers of all sorts.— Myrrha.—Gianni Schiechi.—Master Adam.—Sinon of Troy.
CANTO XXXI. The Giants around the Eighth Circle.—Nimrod.— Ephialtes.—Antiens sets the Poets down in the Ninth Circle.
CANTO XXXII. Ninth Circle: Traitors. First ring: Caina. —Counts of Mangona.— Camicion de' Pazzi.—Second ring: Antenora.— Bocca degli Abati.—Buoso da Duera.—Count Ugolino.
CANTO XXXIII. Ninth Circle: Traitors. Second ring: Antenora.— Count Ugolino.—Third ring: Ptolomaea.—Brother Alberigo.—Branca d' Oria.
CANTO XXXIV. Ninth Circle: Traitors. Fourth ring: Judecca.— Lucifer.— Judas, Brutus and Cassius.— Centre of the universe.— Passage from Hell.—Ascent to the surface of the Southern hemisphere.

Purgatory (Purgatorio)

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 II. Sunrise.—The Poets on the shore.—Coming of a boat, guided by an angel, bearing souls to Purgatory.—Their landing.—Casella and his song.—Cato hurries the souls to the mountain.
CANTO III. Ante-Purgatory.—Souls of those who have died in contumacy of the Church.—Manfred.
CANTO III. Ante-Purgatory.—Souls of those who have died in contumacy of the Church.—Manfred.
CANTO IV. Ante-Purgatory.—Ascent to a shelf of the mountain.—The negligent, who postponed repentance to the last hour—Belacqua.
CANTO V. Ante-Purgatory.—Spirits who had delayed repentance, and met with death by violence, but died repentant.—Jacopo del Cassero.—Buonconte da Montefeltro.—Via de' Tolomei.
CANTO VI. Ante-Purgatory.—More spirits who had deferred repentance till they were overtaken by a violent death.—Efficacy of prayer.—Sordello.—Apostrophe to Italy.
CANTO VII. Virgil makes himself known to Sordello.—Sordello leads the Poets to the Valley of the Princes who have been negligent of salvation.—He points them out by name.
CANTO VIII. Valley of the Princes.—Two Guardian Angels.—Nino Visconti.—The Serpent.—Corrado Malaspina.
CANTO IX. Slumber and Dream of Dante.—The Eagle.—Lucia.—The Gate of Purgatory.—The Angelic Gatekeeper.—Seven P's inscribed on Dante's Forehead.—Entrance to the First Ledge.
CANTO X. First Ledge the Proud.—Examples of humility sculptured on the Rock.
CANTO XI. First Ledge: the Proud.—Prayer.—Omberto Aldobrandeschi.—Oderisi d' Agubbio.—Provinzan Salvani.
CANTO XII. First Ledge: the Proud.—Examples of the punishment of Pride graven on the pavement.—Meeting with an Angel who removes one of the P's.—Ascent to the Second Ledge.
CANTO XIII. Second Ledge: the Envious.—Examples of Love.—The Shades in haircloth, and with sealed eyes.—Sapla of Siena.
CANTO XIV. Second Ledge: the Envious.—Guido del Duca.—Rinieri de' Calboli.—Examples of the punishment of Envy.
CANTO XV. Second Ledge: the Envious.—An Angel removes the second P from Dante's forehead.—Discourse concerning the Sharing of Good.—Ascent to the Third Ledge: the Wrathful.—Examples of Forbearance seen in Vision.
CANTO XVI. Third Ledge: the Wrathful.—Marco Lombardo.—His discourse on Free Will, and the Corruption of the World.
CANTO XVII. Third Ledge: the Wrathful.—Issue from the Smoke.—Vision of examples of Anger—Ascent to the Fourth Ledge, where Sloth is purged—Second Nightfall—Virgil explains how Love is the root of Virtue and of Sin.
CANTO XVIII. Fourth Ledge: the Slothful.—Discourse of Virgil on Love and Free Will.—-Throng of Spirits running in haste to redeem their Sin.—The Abbot of San Zeno.—Dante falls asleep.
CANTO XIX. Fourth Ledge: the Slothful.—Dante dreams of the Siren—The Angel of the Pass.—Ascent to the Fifth Ledge.—Pope Adrian V.
CANTO XX. Fifth Ledge: the Avaricious.—The Spirits celebrate examples of Poverty and Bounty.—Hugh Capet.—His discourse on his descendants.—Trembling of the Mountain.
CANTO XXI. Fifth Ledge: the Avaricious.—Statius.—Cause of the trembling of the Mountain.—Statius does honor to Virgil.
CANTO XXII. Ascent to the Sixth Ledge—Discourse of Statius and Virgil.—Entrance to the Ledge: the Gluttonous.—The Mystic Tree.—Examples of Temperance.
CANTO XXIII. Sixth Ledge the Gluttonous.—Forese Donati.—Nella.—Rebuke of the women of Florence.
CANTO XXIV. Sixth Ledge: the Gluttonous.—Forese Donati.—Bonagiunta of Lucca.—Pope Martin IV.—Ubaldin dalla Pila.—Bonifazio.—Messer Marchese.—Prophecy of Bonagiunta concerning Gentucca, and of Forese concerning Corso de' Donati.—Second Mystic Tree.—The Angel of the Pass.
CANTO XXV. Ascent to the Seventh Ledge.—Discourse of Statius on generation, the infusion of the Soul into the body, and the corporeal semblance of Souls after death.—The Seventh Ledge:the Lustful.—The mode of their Purification.
CANTO XXVI. Seventh Ledge: the Lustful.—Sinners in the fire, going in opposite directions.—Guido Guinicelli.—Arnaut Daniel.
CANTO XXVII. Seventh Ledge: the Lustful.—Passage through the Flames.—Stairway in the rock.—Night upon the stairs.—Dream of Dante.—Morning.—Ascent to the Earthly Paradise.—Last words of Virgil.
CANTO XXVIII. The Earthly Paradise.—The Forest.—A Lady gathering flowers on the bank of a little stream.—Discourse with her concerning the nature of the place.
CANTO XXIX. The Earthly Paradise.—Mystic Procession or Triumph of the Church.
CANTO XXX. The Earthly Paradise.—Beatrice appears.—Departure of Virgil.—Reproof of Dante by Beatrice.
CANTO XXXI. The Earthly Paradise.—Reproachful discourse of Beatrice, and confession of Dante.—Passage of Lethe.—Appeal of the Virtues to Beatrice.—Her Unveiling.
CANTO XXXII. The Earthly Paradise.—Return of the Triumphal procession.—The Chariot bound to the Mystic Tree.—Sleep of Dante.—His waking to find the Triumph departed.—Transformation of the Chariot.—The Harlot and the Giant.
CANTO XXXIII. The Earthly Paradise.—Prophecy of Beatrice concerning one who shall restore the Empire.—Her discourse with Dante.—The river Eunoe.—Dante drinks of it, and is fit to ascend to Heaven.

Paradise (Paradiso)

CANTO I. Proem [Introduction].—Invocation.—Beatrice and Dante ascend to the Sphere of Fire.— Beatrice explains the cause of their ascent.
CANTO II. Proem.—Ascent to the Moon.—The cause of Spots on the Moon.—Influence of the Heavens.
CANTO III. The Heaven of the Moon.—Spirits whose vows had been broken.—Piccarda Donati.—The Empress Constance.
CANTO IV. Doubts of Dante, respecting the justice of Heaven and the abode of the blessed, solved by Beatrice.—Question of Dante as to the possibility of reparation for broken vows.
CANTO V. The sanctity of vows, and the seriousness with which they are to be made or changed.—Ascent to the Heaven of Mercury.—The shade of Justinian.
CANTO VI. Justinian tells of his own life.—The story of the Roman Eagle.—Spirits in the planet Mercury.—Romeo.
CANTO VII. Discourse of Beatrice.—The Fall of Man.—The scheme of his Redemption.
CANTO VIII. Ascent to the Heaven of Venus.—Spirits of Lovers, Source of the order and the varieties in mortal things.
CANTO IX. The Heaven of Venus.—Conversation of Dante with Cunizza da Romano,—With Folco of Marseilles.—Rahab.—Avarice of the Papal Court.
CANTO X. Ascent to the Sun.—Spirits of the wise, and the learned in theology.—St. Thomas Aquinas.—He names to Dante those who surround him.
CANTO XI. The Vanity of worldly desires,—St. Thomas Aquinas undertakes to solve two doubts perplexing Dante.—He narrates the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
CANTO XII. Second circle of the spirits of wise religious men, doctors of the Church and teachers.—St. Bonaventura narrates the life of St. Dominic, and tells the names of those who form the circle with him.
CANTO XIII. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks again, and explains the relation of the wisdom of Solomon to that of Adam and of Christ, and declares the vanity of human judgment.
CANTO XIV. At the prayer of Beatrice, Solomon tells of the glorified body of the blessed after the Last Judgment.—Ascent to the Heaven of Mars.—Souls of the Soldiery of Christ in the form of a Cross with the figure of Christ thereon.—Hymn of the Spirits.
CANTO XV. Dante is welcomed by his ancestor, Cacciaguida.— Cacciaguida tells of his family, and of the simple life of Florence in the old days.
CANTO XVI. The boast of blood.—Cacciaguida continues his discourse concerning the old and the new Florence.
CANTO XVII. Dante questions Cacciaguida as to his fortunes.— Cacciaguida replies, foretelling the exile of Dante, and the renown of his Poem.
CANTO XVIII. The Spirits in the Cross of Mars.—Ascent to the Heaven of Jupiter.—Words shaped in light upon the planet by the Spirits.—Denunciation of the avarice of the Popes.
CANTO XIX. The voice of the Eagle.—It speaks of the mysteries of Divine justice; of the necessity of Faith for salvation; of the sins of certain kings.
CANTO XX. The Song of the Just.—Princes who have loved righteousness, in the eye of the Eagle.—Spirits, once Pagans, in bliss.—Faith and Salvation.—Predestination.
CANTO XXI. Ascent to the Heaven of Saturn.—Spirits of those who had given themselves to devout contemplation.—The Golden Stairway.—St. Peter Damian.—Predestination.—The luxury of modern Prelates.
CANTO XXII. Beatrice reassures Dante.—St. Benedict appears.—He tells of the founding of his Order, and of the falling away of its brethren. Beatrice and Dante ascend to the Starry Heaven.— The constellation of the Twins.—Sight of the Earth.
CANTO XXIII. The Triumph of Christ. 
CANTO XXIV. St. Peter examines Dante concerning Faith, and approves his answer.
CANTO XXV. St. James examines Dante concerning Hope.—St. John appears,with a brightness so dazzling as to deprive Dante, for the time, of sight.
CANTO XXVI. St. John examines Dante concerning Love.—Dante's sight restored.—Adam appears, and answers questions put to him by Dante.
CANTO XXVII. Denunciation by St. Peter of his degenerate successors.—Dante gazes upon the Earth.—Ascent of Beatrice and Dante to the Crystalline Heaven.—Its nature.—Beatrice rebukes the covetousness of mortals.
CANTO XXVIII. The Heavenly Hierarchy. 
CANTO XXIX. Discourse of Beatrice concerning the creation and nature of the Angels.—She reproves the presumption and foolishness of preachers.
CANTO XXX. Ascent to the Empyrean.—The River of Light.—The celestial Rose.—The seat of Henry VII.—The last words of Beatrice.
CANTO XXXI. The Rose of Paradise.—St. Bernard.—Prayer to Beatrice.—The glory of the Blessed Virgin.
CANTO XXXII. St. Bernard describes the order of the Rose, and points out many of the Saints.—The children in Paradise.—The angelic festival.—The patricians of the Court of Heaven.
CANTO XXXIII. Prayer to the Virgin.—The Beatific Vision.—The Ultimate Salvation.


Life as a Journey

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 BeowulfThe Divine Comedy focuses mainly on life as a spiritual journey. The obstacles the traveler must overcome are temptation and sin. 

Salvation Through Repentance

Even if a person sins, he is not lost. Sincere contrition and penitence will restore the soul to eligibility for entrance into heaven. 


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. 

Dante's Political, Social, and Religious Views
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
A comedy in earlier times was a work with a happy ending. Since The Divine Comedy involves redemption, it fits this category. The word comedy is derived from the Greek words komos (meaning revel, delight or happiness) and aoidos (meaning singer). Thus, a comedy was a work in which a writer "sang" about a happy event. Comedies of earlier times did not necessarily contain jokes or humorous situations. However, they did have to have a happy ending.

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
.........So harsh and dense and savage to traverse.......esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
.........That fear returns in thinking on that wood..........che nel pensier rinova la paura!

.........It is so bitter death is hardly worse....................Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
.........But, for the good it was my chance to gain,........ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
.........The other things I saw there I'll rehearse.............dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte

.........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:
  • Three main sections: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
  • Thirty-three cantos in each section. (The first section also has an introductory canto.)
  • Three-line rhyme scheme (terza rima) in which the second line of one stanza rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza. (See format above.)
  • Three guides—Virgil, Beatrice and St. Bernard—who lead Dante through the realms of the afterlife. (See the next paragraph for more information on the guides.)
  • A division of sin into three types: (1) incontinence, involving lack of self-control over natural appetites (for sex, food, drink, etc.); (2) violence, involving anger and brutality; (3) malice or fraud, including simony, hypocrisy, flattery and forgery.
  • A leopard, a lion, and a wolf symbolizing these sins in the opening canto.

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
  • Why does The Divine Comedy remain one of the world's most popular literary classics, appearing in college curriculums around the world?
  • Do the denizens of Hell (Inferno) have any admirable qualities?
  • The Roman epic poet Virgil guided Dante partway through his journey. To what extent did Virgil (70-19 BC) guide Dante in the latter's literary career?
  • To what extent did Dante intend his description of the afterlife to be taken literally? To what extent was it to be taken figuratively or allegorically?
  • Dante mentioned by name many historical personages condemned to eternal damnation. In doing so, was he going too far? After all, the Bible (Matthew: Chapter 7, Verse 1) declares, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." 
  • Explain in detail the difference between the earth-centered (geocentric) system of Ptolemy and the sun-centered (heliocentric) system of Copernicus and Galileo.
  • Dante completed The Divine Comedy more than one hundred years before the invention of the printing press. Write an essay explaining how a literary work in Dante's time was mass-produced and distributed.
Author Information
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