Cultural Capital 01: Dante’s Inferno

Flatterers … are destined to mud-wrestle each other in a lake of diarrhoea … representing the crap they spoke whilst alive, I suppose!

BH george michael choose life
The ultimate HAMLET tee-shirt?

Subtitled:  Big Mouth Strikes Again (The Smiths – my students will know why, today of all days)

This article was written for a forthcoming in-house newsletter/magazine.  First, hopefully, in a series of articles (Cultural Capital) about influential, dare I say essential works that our students need to get under their belts.  I set myself a STRICT word-count of 750, including quotations but excluding titles and references, tried to avoid being too professorial, and I’ve prioritised other texts related to what I’ll be teaching as part of the OCR A Level Engish Literature course.  If I’m spared 😉

Inferno is a valuable source of AO1 and AO3, people.  This won’t replace you reading the original, but it might at least persuade you to give it a go.

Next up?  James I‘s DaemonologieMachiavelli‘s The Prince or The Book of Genesis:  open to suggestions …

[…] Midway on our path in life,

I came around and found myself searching

Through a wood, the right way blurred and lost.

I know the feeling.  More importantly, so begins Dante’s Inferno, the sexiest-titled poem no-one’s read.  Perhaps only at a certain age do you start asking Really Big Questions:  ‘What am I doing with my life?  What’s the point?  What’s left?’  Tennyson’s like a dog with a bone on this.  Ponytail Shakespeare readers – you’re fed up of hearing this sort of thing from me.

The most important question, though, is surely ‘what’s next?

In Shakespeare’s most famous speech, the afterlife worries Hamlet:

‘… in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause’

It’s fashionable to suggest he’s not considering suicide, but he tells us that:

‘the dread of something after death

[…] makes us rather bear the ills we have

Than fly to others that we know of.’

Hamlet (like Wham!) chooses life – ‘out of the frying pan, and into the fire’ (of hell), you might say …

The Tenth Circle poster A4
Front page for the latest issue of our in-house publication – and inspiration for this post … apologies, it has been hard to find the original artist so that I can credit them …

Murderous Uncle Claudius could tell Hamlet: suicides end up in the seventh circle, with ‘the violent’.  Their punishment? Transformation into thorny trees that are fed upon by harpies.  Even after Judgement Day, suicides won’t get their human bodies back; they rejected the human form God gave them. ‘You had your chance, and you blew it!’

Claudius knows something even worse is set aside for him, however:

‘O, my offence is rank: it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t –

A brother’s murder.’

Knowing his Dante, Claudius understands he’s destined for the ninth circle, with ‘the treacherous’.  Dante’s narrator finds kin-murderers (like Cain, jealous biblical killer of his brother, Abel) down in the dark: bodies eternally encased in ice, heads forced to droop with shame.  It gives an interesting slant on the phrase ‘when hell freezes over’.  Associating God (and monarchs) with the sun, heat, light, etc, these guys are as far away from that as possible …

Claudius would have known his Dante. When Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing, Dante‘s 14th-century epic had been circulating in England for ages.  Remember, in this era, being called an atheist was more serious than being the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian: it was one of the accusations made against Marlowe as his world began unravelling.  Elizabethan society was dominated by the Great Chain Of Being:  strict social hierarchies existed for humans, animals, even trees!  Dante’s work similarly mapped out the afterlife.

‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ [the sign above my classroom Hell’s entrance – oh, ‘what larks!’ as Dickens might say …]

Although some content (internal Italian political stuff, yawn) is less relevant now, Inferno gives fascinating insights into the beliefs and motivations of our playwrights, their characters, and the paying audiences who’d ultimately make or break a show.  Look at some of the eternal punishments.  You’ll often hear characters described as ‘flatterers’.  Demoted to the eighth circle, they are destined to mud-wrestle each other in a lake of diarrhoea … representing the crap they spoke whilst alive, I suppose!  The lustful (in the second circle – see below) are eternally blown about by stormy winds – a metaphor for the passions which prevented them taking the ‘right’ direction?  Go on – think up an eternal punishment for the nose-pickers …

Next, consider the levels themselves.  I challenge you to order the sins by seriousness; our 21st century moral codes are very different.  There are no answers, only very, very interesting questions.  Ask yourself:

  • why the fraudulent (various species of liars) rank as worse than the violent;
  • why the top layers seem to be crimes of instinct rather than thought;
  • does the fact that being ‘lustful’ is only a second circle sin reflect or encourage licentiousness and infidelity; and
  • why the very worst crimes are those of betrayal – especially betrayal of a superior (which we might rename ‘treason’?)  With my Marxist critical hat on I would suggest the answer is quite plain …

And so to Edward II:  the king’s assassin is called Lightborneget in touch and tell me why you think he doesn’t mind being consigned to the ninth circle.  Go on, think about it!

Students of dystopia, awake:  Inferno as social engineering?

When you approach your Shakespeare and Marlowe texts, troops, reflect on the fact that when someone does something morally wrong, they probably believe they know exactly what the payback for that crime is.  The paying audience will too.  It should make the villains seem even more villainous …

BH inferno kirkpatrick cover
cover to my gorgeous 2013 Penguin translation


Robin Kirkpatrick (trans.):  Inferno (Penguin:  London, 2013)

Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (eds):  Hamlet (The Arden Shakespeare, third edition), Methuen:  London, 2006)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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