Before beginning the poem, please read the separate page,
(you only need to print the background page once). As
you work your way through the poem, please remember:
- There are useful notes and diagrams starting at p. 342 in our edition.
- Each canto is prefaced by the translator's summary of the action of
- You should be prepared to answer quiz questions that ask you to identify
the specific sins and punishments for each day's reading, though I won't
expect you to remember these on the exam itself.
(Prologue to entire poem)
- As the poem begins, pay attention to details of time and space. Where
is he? What is he trying to do? What difficulties does he encounter
on the way?
- Using the technique we have developed in class, analyze the simile at
- What is the significance of the name for God used in I, 40?
- Study the details of Virgil's self-introduction (I, 67-75). What
aspects of his identity does he single out, and in what order does he arrange
- What does Virgil forecast at I, 112-29?
- Who is Dante referring to at II, 13 (check note)?
- Who is Dante referring to at II, 28 (check note)?
- Study Beatrice's reported speech to Virgil (II, 58-69). What is
so special about Virgil that she chooses him to accomplish the task at hand?
- What does Beatrice say "prompted" (II, 72) her to come to Hell to send
Virgil to Dante?
- Analyze the simile at II, 127-32.
- What does Dante say Virgil has "disposed" (II, 136) his heart to?
(Entrance to Hell)
- The famous first lines are the only significant written text Dante encounters
in Hell. Who is the fictional speaker of this text (the "me")? Who
is its "maker"? After he reads the inscription, what does Dante say
to Virgil about its meaning?
- What does Dante mean by describing this group of souls and angels as
those "who never were alive" (III, 64; reread 34-39 if you are not sure)?
- What punishment does this group suffer?
- What is Charon's job? How does he greet Virgil and Dante? How
does Virgil respond?
- How do the newly arrived damned souls react when they hear his words?
- What happens to Dante at the end of the canto?
(Circle One: Limbo: Unbaptized Infants, Virtuous Pagans)
- When Virgil says, "I shall go first and you will follow me" (IV, 15),
can his words be interpreted in a double sense?
- How does Virgil correct Dante's mistaken belief that the Roman poet
is "frightened" (17)?
- What is the other name for the First Circle? Why do the souls here
"sorrow without torments" (28)?
- Lines 52-63 describe what in popular medieval theology was called the
Harrowing of Hell. When did this event take place? Who participated?
- Underline each occurance of the word honor or its derivatives
in lines 70-102. What is its significance in this context?
(Circle Two: the Lustful)
- What is Minos's function?
- How does Dante describe the nature of lust (V, 37-39)? What is the
relation between lust and its punishment?
- What emotion "seized" (72) Dante when encountering the damned lovers?
What emotion leads him to faint at the end of the canto? How might this
episode be interpreted in the light of the inner struggle St. Paul describes
in Rom. 7?
- Who or what does Francesca blame for their falling into sin at lines
100-6? What activity does she describe as "the first root of our love"
(125), i.e. what she and Paolo were doing that led to their carnal act?
(Circle Three: the Gluttonous)
- What is the relation between the sin of gluttony, its punishment by
filthy precipitation, and Cerberus's behavior?
- What do Dante and Virgil tread on at lines 34-36? How might this detail
be interpreted to shed light on Dante's poetics in Inferno?
- What events in Florence does Ciacco [CHAHK-koh] prophesy (see note)?
- What big event does Virgil prophesy at lines 94-99?
(Circle Four: the Avaricious and Prodigal; Circle Five: the
Wrathful and Sullen)
- Fourth Circle: Explain the logic of the punishment of the avaricious
and prodigal by drawing on Virgil's explanation of these sins at lines 55-66.
- Fifth Circle: Who "tore each other piecemeal with their teeth" (114)?
Who is now "bitter in the blackened mud" (124)?
- (Still Circle Five): Why does Virgil commend Dante's indignation at
the sinner (44-45; cf. 57)?
- Literally, what is the crisis situation that occurs at lines 82-130?
(Descent to Dis/Lower Hell)
- What literally is the danger posed by Medusa/the Gorgon that leads
Virgil to cover Dante's eyes? Given this literal danger, how might we interpret
what Dante (the poet) is hinting when he addresses the reader at 61-63?
- Who or what literally rescues Dante and Virgil at lines 73-105?
- What category of sinner is buried in the stone tombs?
(still in Circle Sixth: Heretics)
- What heretical doctrine do the Epicureans hold (line 15)?
- What mistake does Cavalcante, father of Dante's friend the poet Guido
Cavalcanti, make that leads Dante to ask Farinata
about the inability of the damned to see "present things" (99)?
(pausing in Sixth Circle)
Canto 11 is what I like to call the roadmap to Hell, where Virgil explains
to Dante the wayfarer the design of Hell. It deserves careful study, in
conjunction with the diagram on p. 343.
- Why does God find fraud "more displeasing" (26) than force?
- Lines 28-51 discuss the varieties of "violence" (force) the travelers
will encounter in the next circle, which is subdivided into three parts,
some of which are further subdivided. As Virgil explains the distinctions
on which each subdivision is based, note the reasons for the divisions.
Since (as the fictional voice on the gate of Hell reminded us in Canto
3) Dante portrays Hell as God's creation, you might ask yourself: What aspect
of God's nature does Dante the poet wish the elaborate, architectural structure
of Hell to imply?
- Lines 52-66 discuss the punishment of fraud in the two lowest circles
(Eight and Nine): What principle distinguishes the two kinds of fraud, justifying
two separate circles?
- What is the Christian name for the ultimate traitor whom Virgil calls
Dis, who sits at the center of the universe at the bottom of the pit of
- Lines 67-90 return us to the portion of Hell that the travelers have
already crossed. Dante doesn't understand why the sinners in the first
five circles are not being punished in the city of Dis (lower Hell). Virgil
replies by reminding his student of Aristotle's Ethics. What are
the three "dispositions" that Aristotle distinguishes? Which of the three
does Virgil say "least offends God" (84) that corresponds to circles 2-5?
- In lines 91-111 Dante asks a question that leads Virgil to introduce
a philosophical conception of a hierarchical relation among Divine Intellect
and Divine Art, nature, and human art ("art" being used in its older sense:
any productive activity, not limited to "fine arts"). What does Virgil
mean when he tells Dante that "your [that is, human beings'] art is almost
God's grandchild" (106)?
(Seventh Circle, Ring One: Violent against "neighbors")
- The landscape has evidently changed since Virgil's previous trip through
Hell (see 9, 20-27). According to Virgil's reasoning (37-44), what event
and what motive force caused the "mass of boulders" (36) to collapse?
- What extraordinary characteristic does the centaur Chiron notice about
(Seventh Circle, Ring Two: Violent against self and own
- What does Dante do to the thornbush (31) that causes the soul of the
suicide, Pier della Vigna, to cry out in pain? What are the implications
of Virgil's explanation of why he encouraged Dante's to do this deed (46-51)?
- What does the suicide explain happens to their souls upon death (93-102)?
What does he explain will happen to their bodies when their corpses are
resurrected preceding the Last Judgment (103-8)?
(Seventh Circle, Ring Three: Violent against God: Zone
- Explain what Dante the poet refers to when he records the "dread work
[orribil arte in Italian] that justice had devised" (6).
- Consult the note to the reference to Capaneus (51-75): Who was he?
What was his deed of "arrogance" (63)? How might we interpret the appearance
of this mythological figure and his crime in an ostensibly Christian poem?
- Compare the intiguing figure of the Old Man of Crete to Hesiod's story
of the different generations of human history (Mandelbaum's note cites Dante's
two direct sources, the book of Daniel and the Roman poet Ovid; Ovid's source
is Hesiod's earlier version that you read in Works and Days)
- In Virgil's explanation of the river system of drainage in Hell, he
mentions one river from classical mythology, Lethe, that the wayfarers will
not encounter in Hell. According to Virgil, where will they cross it (136-38)?
(still Circle Seven, Third Ring: Zone Two: Violent against
God [Nature]: Sodomites)
- Analyze the two similes at lines 16-21. Compare the first adjective
that Brunetto Latini (Dante's friend and mentor) uses to describe the Florentines
at line 67 to see what it has in common with the two earlier similes. This
is an example of an extended pattern of imagery that we should interpret
in class discussion.
(continues Zone Two)
The end of this canto presents one of the most important poetic/rhetorical
moves that Dante makes in Inferno: he discusses the issue of the
truth of his narrative. What does he literally mean when he describes
the figure who answers the signal of dropping the rope as "that truth which
seems a lie" (124)? By what authority does he swear (128) that what he
is about to relate to the reader is true?
(Seventh Circle, Ring Three, Zone Three: Violent against
God [Nature and Art]: Usurers)
- What does Geryon look like? How does his appearance provide a suitable
symbol for entering the circles of fraud?
- Be sure you understand what usury means, and why it defies both
nature and art (see XI, 106-11).
(Circle Eight, Pouch One [Panders and Seducers] and Pouch
- Who whips the panders?
- Which famous king of Greek legend used "polished words" to seduce Hypsipyle
- What logic might explain the punishment of the flatterers?
(Circle Eight, Third Pouch: Simonists)
- Comment on the significance of lines 10-12.
- Scholars have debated the significance of Dante's story about his
breaking the baptismal font in the Baptistry of Florence (see images from
Baptistry). Given that simony is a sin unique to ecclesiastics, how
might we interpret the story of a layman breaking the font to save a drowning
- Who does Pope Nicholas III incorrectly believe Dante is (52-53)?
(Circle Eight, Fourth Pouch: Diviners, Astrologers, Magicians)
- What does Dante (the poet) hope his reader will "gather" (19) from
what he is about to describe? What causes Dante (the wayfarer) to weep?
What is Virgil's reaction to Dante's weeping? (Note: Mandelbaum's translation
of line 30 makes poor sense; a better translation might be: "who sorrows/feels
pain at God's judgment."
- Feel free to skip Virgil's long disquisition on his home town, Mantua
(Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch: Barrators)
- What "art" of the Venetians (7) does Dante recall when he describes
the "art of God" (16)? What human "art" does Dante recall when he describes
the demons plunging the barrator/grafter in the pitchlike substance (55-58)?
(Eighth Circle, still Fifth Pouch)
- What sound does the poet compare to a strange "bugle" (12)?
- How might we interpret the story of the Navarrese grafter who tricks
the demons, who then fight among themselves?
(Eighth Circle, Fifth Pouch; Sixth Pouch: Hypocrites)
- How do you interpret the relation of the sin of hypocrisy to its punishment
(Eighth Circle, Sixth Pouch; Seventh Pouch: Thieves)
- Study Virgil's advice to Dante at 46-57. What portion of it seems
most similar to St. Paul's theological argument? What portion seems less
like that argument?
- What literally happens to Vanni Fucci [FOOCH-chee] as punishment (97-118)?
- The phoenix, the legendary bird that dies in flames and is reborn from
its own ashes, was traditionally read by medieval Christians as an allegorical
symbol for Christ. How do you interpret the image of the phoenix used to
describe what happens to the soul of Vanni Fucci (106-8)?
(Eighth Circle, still Pouch 7: Thieves)
- What is Dante's point about the Latin poets Ovid and Lucan (94-102)?
(Eighth Circle, Pouch 8: Fraudulent Counselors)
- Study Ulysses's account of his final journey, which Dante invented
(90-142), esp. the speech he made to his men (112-120). What values does
Ulysses advise his men to cultivate? What does it tell us about Dante's
values that he would assign Ulysses a place in the eighth circle for this
(Still Circle Eight, Pouch 8)
- Explain the irony in Guido da Montefeltro's opening statement (61-68).
- What did Pope Boniface VIII ask Guido to do? What is "the law of contradiction"
(120) that leads Guido to his damnation?
(Circle Eight, pouch 9: Sowers of Scandal and Schism)
- What problem as a poet does Dante address at the opening of the canto
(1-6)? How effectively do you think he addresses this problem in this canto?
- Explain the principle of contrapasso, or "the law of counter-penalty"
(142) as it seems to operate in this canto and the poem in general.
(Eighth Circle, still Pouch 9: Sowers of Scandal; pouch
10: Falsifiers, first group: Alchemists, who falsify metals)
- At the end of the canto, the alchemist Capocchio describes his counterfeiting
of precious metal as "aping nature" (139). How might this provide a clue
to interpreting the logic of this group's punishment?
(Eighth Circle, Pouch 10, group 2: Counterfeiters of person;
group 3: Counterfeiters of coin; group 4: Falsifiers of words or liars)
- What are the stories of the two liars placed together at 97-99?
- Why does Virgil scold Dante (130-148)? How might this passage be interpreted
allegorically to implicate the reader?
(entering Ninth Circle: Frozen River Cocytus and Giants)
- What mistake of perception does Dante make at 22?
- How might we interpret the sin of Ephialtes (91-96)?
- How do Virgil and Dante get down to the ninth circle at the end of the
canto? Who does the poet tell us is down there (143)?
(Ninth Circle, First Ring: Caina, Traitors to Kin; Second
Ring: Antenor, Traitors to Homeland or Party)
- What does Dante do to Bocca (97-105)?
- What comparison comes to the poet's mind as he describes one soul chewing
on the head of another (127-29)?
(Ninth Circle, still Ring 2; Ring 3, Ptolomea, Traitors
- What was the new name of Eagles' Tower in which Archbishop Ruggieri
imprisoned Count Ugolino and his sons (22)?
- What did Ugolino's sons ask their father for (39)?
- How does Ugolino describe his reaction when the guards nailed the door
- What offer do his sons make (60-63)?
- What is unique about the status of the souls in Ptolomea (122-35)?
(Ninth Circle, Fourth Ring: Judecca: Traitors against Benefactors;
completion of journey through hell)
- Who is the three-headed figure making a cold wind?
- Who does the figure have in each mouth?
- Why does Dante get confused when he and Virgil reach the half-way point
of Lucifer's body, and how does Virgil's explanation resolve the confusion
- What literal "point" (XXXIV, 76, 93, 110) in the central part of Lucifer's
body do you believe Dante the poet has chosen as the symbolically significant
place furthest from God in heaven, the point of "the universe's center,
seat of Dis," as Virgil described it earlier (XI, 65), the "melancholy hole"
(XXXII, 2) and "base of all the universe" (XXXII, 8)?
- What does Dante glimpse when he looks up right before they reemerge
on the surface of the earth (139)? What is the symbolic significance of
the noun "beauty" (138)?
Review and Consolidation
In studying Dante's Inferno
our priority has been on following the
literal narrative, the story of Dante's journey. But we have also had frequent
occasion to think about the poem's allegorical or spiritual significance,
often identifying symbolic "figures" (or "types") that mean themselves but
also point toward spiritual matters. A statement affirming that the poem
was intended to be read in this way appears in a famous letter to Can Grande
della Scala, one of Dante's patrons during his exile. The letter claims
to be written by Dante himself while he was composing the third part of
the poem (though some scholars dispute its authenticity, many accept it
as genuine). Please study the following excerpt from that important letter:
[I]t is clear that the subject [of the Comedy] . . . must
be twofold. And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in
the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next
from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the
whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after
death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole
work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point
of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the
exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.
(Cited from Minnis and Scott, eds., Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism,
c.1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition)
Page created: 3-04-03
Page last revised: 4-10-03
Copyright © 2003 R. James Goldstein