Condemned to the circle of the evil counsellors, Ulysses in the Inferno is ambitious, passionate, and manipulative. Although king of Ithaca, Ulysses in life wants nothing to do with the people there, including his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, and he abandons everyone to sail westward until he reaches the end of the world. There, he hopes to “learn / of every human vice, and human worth.” Importantly, in Greek mythology, the western edge of the world is off-limits, potentially the home of the gods; Ulysses’ goal is to learn and see things forbidden to human beings. This ambitious goal is not a rational one. Ulysses himself describes it as a “burning to go forth,” a passionate desire. This is important, because in Dante’s Hell, the cause of wrongdoing is often a person’s decision to put passion over reason, rather than letting reason guide passion. In fact, Ulysses’ unchecked passion and ambition lead him to walk away from his kingly responsibilities on a foolish, doomed quest. 

He manipulates his friends into coming with him on this quest. He calls them “brothers,” reminds them that they were not “made to live like brutes” in their homeland of Ithaca, and assures them that they are “pursu[ing] the good in mind and deed” by setting out for the end of the world. In saying these things, Ulysses is deliberately making his friends’ “appetites so keen / to take the journey” that there is no question of whether they will come with him. This, ultimately, is why Ulysses is in Hell: the way he intentionally and in bad faith plays on his friends’ sense of brotherhood and their desire to accomplish something noble, in order to convince them to accompany him on a doomed voyage. In the Inferno, Ulysses reveals himself for the manipulative, evil counsellor he is, rather than the heroic figure he pretends to be.

Read a different interpretation of the character of Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses.”