“…this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.
No fame of them the world permits to be…”
Virgil explains to Dante that here, in the “vestibule” of Hell, are the people who did nothing to earn a place in either Heaven or Hell— their sin was “indifference.” The punishment these sinners face, which they lament loudly, is to be completely forgotten on earth. As poets, Dante and Virgil would care deeply about maintaining their own earthly fame. Thus, as characters in the text, Dante and Virgil view this punishment as particularly harsh.
“[T]ell him who thou wast, so that by way
Of some amends thy fame he may refresh
Up in the world, to which he can return.”
Here, Virgil encourages a sinner to tell his life story to Dante, so that when Dante returns to the land of the living, he can retell the sinner’s story and “refresh” his fame. Many of the sinners take Virgil up on this offer, which results with the reader learning how these people ended up in Hell. Dante implies elsewhere that if these people were in Heaven, they would not care about earthly fame, but as denizens of Hell, earthly fame is the best they can hope for.
“But inasmuch as never from this depth
Did anyone return, if I hear true,
Without the fear of infamy I answer…”
While traveling through Hell, Dante persuades sinners to confide in him by claiming that he can tell a sinner’s story on earth, and thus restore his or her fame. Here, a man named Guido da Montefeltro explains that he does not believe Dante’s offer is valid because no one has ever returned to earth from Hell. Ironically, Guido tells Dante his life story only because he believes Dante will never leave Hell. Guido is ashamed of his tale and knows that if people back on earth heard his story, the result would not be fame but “infamy.”
“Living I am, and dear to thee it may be,”
Was my response, “if thou demandest fame,
That mid the other notes thy name I place.”
Dante is using his standard enticement to get a sinner to tell his story: He promises to increase the sinner’s fame back in the land of the living. However, this particular sinner doesn’t want his story told and even refuses to reveal his name. Dante only learns from a bystander that the man is Bocca, one of Dante’s real-life political enemies. After this revelation, Dante forbids Bocca from speaking, saying he knows the truth about Bocca and that truth is all he will tell anyone. This is just one example of how Dante uses context to reveal his thoughts and feelings about real people in his life.
“[I]f my words be seed that may bear fruit
Of infamy to the traitor whom I gnaw,
Speaking and weeping shalt thou see together.”
A sinner named Count Ugolino explains that he tells his story to Dante not to increase his own fame back on earth, but rather to ruin the reputation of his enemy, Archbishop Ruggieri, with whom he is being punished for eternity and whose head he is gnawing on. Count Ugolino proceeds to describe a tragedy in which Ruggieri imprisoned him and his four sons simply because Ruggieri viewed Ugolino as a political enemy. While imprisoned, Ugolino witnessed his sons die of starvation. This exchange emphasizes that Dante holds the power to restore the dead’s honor or ensure infamy and shame.