Minos, Francesca (and Paolo)
Famous Lovers (Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan), Lancelot (Guinevere and Gallehaut)
Here Dante explores the relationship--as notoriously challenging in his time and place as in ours--between love and lust, between the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire. The lustful in hell, whose actions often led them and their lovers to death, are "carnal sinners who subordinate reason to desire" (Inf. 5.38-9). From the examples presented, it appears that for Dante the line separating lust from love is crossed when one acts on this misguided desire. Dante, more convincingly than most moralists and theologians, shows that this line is a very fine one indeed, and he acknowledges the potential complicity (his own included) of those who promulgate ideas and images of romantic love through their creative work. Dante's location of lust --one of the seven capital sins--in the first circle of hell in which an unrepented sin is punished (the second circle overall) is similarly ambiguous: on the one hand, lust's foremost location--farthest from Satan--marks it as the least serious sin in hell (and in life); on the other hand, Dante's choice of lust as the first sin presented recalls the common--if crude--association of sex with original sin, that is, with the fall of humankind (Adam and Eve) in the garden of Eden.
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Typical of the monsters and guardians of hell, Dante's Minos is an amalgam of figures from classical sources who is completed with a couple of the poet's personal touches. His Minos may in fact be a combination of two figures of this name--both rulers of Crete--one the grandfather of the other. The older Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, was known--because of his wisdom and the admired laws of his kingdom-- as the "favorite of the gods." This reputation earned him the office-- following his death--of supreme judge of the underworld. He was thus charged, as Virgil attests, with verifying that the personal accounting of each soul who came before him corresponded with what was written in the urn containing all human destinies: "He shakes the urn and calls on the assembly of the silent, to learn the lives of men and their misdeeds" (Aen. 6.432-3). The second Minos, grandson of the first, exacted harsh revenge on the Athenians (who had killed his son Androgeos) by demanding an annual tribute of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) as a sacrificial offer to the Minotaur, the hybrid monster lurking in the labyrinth built by Daedalus.
Minos' long tail, which he wraps around his body a number of times equal to the soul's assigned level (circle) of hell (Inf. 5.11-12), is Dante's invention. How do you think the judged souls travel to their destined location in hell for eternal punishment? Might Minos' tail be somehow involved in this unexplained event? Dante leaves this detail to our imagination.
The original Italian of the first line describing Minos --"Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia" (Inf. 5.4)--is a wonderful example of onomatopoeia (the sound of the words imitating their meaning) as the repeated trilling of the r's in "orribilmente e ringhia" evokes the frightening sound of a growling beast.
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Francesca (and Paolo)
Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished together in hell for their adultery: Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, Gianciotto ("Crippled John"). Francesca's shade tells Dante that her husband is destined for punishment in Caina--the infernal realm of familial betrayal named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8)--for murdering her and Paolo. Francesca was the aunt of Guido Novello da Polenta, Dante's host in Ravenna during the last years of the poet's life (1318-21). She was married (c. 1275) for political reasons to Gianciotto of the powerful Malatesta family, rulers of Rimini. Dante may have actually met Paolo in Florence (where Paolo was capitano del popolo--a political role assigned to citizens of other cities--in 1282), not long before he and Francesca were killed by Gianciotto.
Although no version of Francesca's story is known to exist before Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio--a generation or two after Dante--provides a "historical" account of the events behind Francesca's presentation that would not be out of place among the sensational novellas of his prose masterpiece, The Decameron. Even if there is more fiction than fact in Boccaccio's account, it certainly helps explain Dante-character's emotional response to Francesca's story by presenting her in a sympathetic light. Francesca, according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, when the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo got stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room); when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried--accompanied by many tears--in a single tomb.
Francesca's eloquent description of the power of love (Inf. 5.100-7), emphasized through the use of anaphora, bears much the same meaning and style as the love poetry once admired by Dante and of which he himself produced many fine examples.
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Famous Lovers (Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Achilles, Paris, Tristan)
Physical beauty, romance, sex, and death--these are the pertinent elements in the stories of the lustful souls identified from among the "more than a thousand" such figures pointed out to Dante by Virgil (Inf. 5.52-69). Semiramis was a powerful Assyrian Queen alleged--by the Christian historian Orosius--to have been so perverse that she made even the vice of incest a legal practice. She was said to have been killed by an illegitimate son. Dido, Queen of Carthage and widow of Sychaeus, killed herself after her lover, Aeneas, abandoned her to continue his mission to establish a new civilization in Italy (Aeneid 4). Cleopatra, the beautiful Queen of Egypt, took her own life to avoid capture by Octavian (the future emperor Augustus); Octavian had defeated Mark Antony, who was Cleopatra's lover (she had previously been the lover of Julius Caesar). Helen, wife of Menalaus (King of Sparta) was said to be the cause of the Trojan war: acclaimed as the most beautiful mortal woman, she was abducted by Paris and brought to Troy as his mistress. The "great Achilles" was the most formidable Greek hero in the war against the Trojans. He was killed by Paris, according to medieval accounts (Dante did not know Homer's version), after being tricked into entering the temple of Apollo to meet the Trojan princess Polyxena. Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and Iseult (Mark's fiancée) became lovers after they mistakenly drank the magic potion intended for Mark and Iseult. Mark shoots Tristan with a poisoned arrow, according to one version of the story popular in Dante's day, and the wounded man then clenches his lover so tightly that they die in one another's arms.
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Lancelot (Guinevere and Gallehaut)
The story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which Francesca identifies as the catalyst for her affair with Paolo (Inf. 5.127-38), was a French romance popular both in poetry (by Chrétien de Troyes) and in a prose version known as Lancelot of the Lake. According to this prose text, it is Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, who kisses Lancelot, the most valiant of Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. Francesca, by giving the romantic initiative to Paolo, reverses the roles from the story. To her mind, the entire book recounting this famous love affair performs a role similar to that of the character Gallehaut, a friend of Lancelot who helps bring about the adulterous relationship between the queen and her husband's favorite knight.
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"Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia" (5.4)
Minos stands there, horrifyingly, and growls
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"Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse: / quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante" (5.137-8)
a Gallehaut was the book and he who wrote it: / that day we read no more of it
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What is the logical relationship between the vice of lust and its punishment in Dante's hell?
Why is Dante moved to tears after Francesca's description of love (5.100-7) and why does he finally fall "as a dead body falls" after her personal account of her intimate relationship with Paolo (5.127-38)?
The episode of Francesca and Paolo, the first in which Dante encounters someone punished in hell for their sins, presents a challenge: Dante-character is overcome by compassion for the lovers even as Dante-poet has damned them to hell in the first place. What are possible consequences of this apparent gap between the perspectives of the character and the poet who are both "Dante"?
From Dante's presentation of Francesca and Paolo, we are encouraged to consider the place of moral responsibility in depictions of love, sex, and violence in our own day. We can certainly discuss music, television, movies, and advertising (as well as literature) in these terms. Who is more (or less) responsible and therefore accountable for unacceptable attitudes and behavior in society: the creators and vehicles of such messages or the consumers and audiences?
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