The author and protagonist of Inferno; the focus of all action and interaction with other characters. Because Dante chose to present his fictional poem as a record of events that actually happened to him, a wide gulf between Dante the poet and Dante the character pervades the poem. For instance, Dante the poet often portrays Dante the character as compassionate and sympathetic at the sight of suffering sinners, but Dante the poet chose to place them in Hell and devised their suffering. As a result, if Dante the character is at all representative of Dante the poet, he is a very simplified version: sympathetic, somewhat fearful of danger, and confused both morally and intellectually by his experience in Hell. As the poem progresses, Dante the character gradually learns to abandon his sympathy and adopt a more pitiless attitude toward the punishment of sinners, which he views as merely a reflection of divine justice.
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Dante’s guide through the depths of Hell. Historically, Virgil lived in the first century b.c., in what is now northern Italy. Scholars consider him the greatest of the Latin poets. His masterpiece, the Aeneid, tells the story of how Aeneas, along with fellow survivors of the defeat of Troy, came to found Rome. The shade (or spirit) of Virgil that appears in Inferno has been condemned to an eternity in Hell because he lived prior to Christ’s appearance on Earth (and thus prior to the possibility of redemption in Him). Nonetheless, Virgil has now received orders to lead Dante through Hell on his spiritual journey. Virgil proves a wise, resourceful, and commanding presence, but he often seems helpless to protect Dante from the true dangers of Hell. Critics generally consider Virgil an allegorical representation of human reason—both in its immense power and in its inferiority to faith in God.
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One of the blessed in Heaven, Beatrice aids Dante’s journey by asking an angel to find Virgil and bid him guide Dante through Hell. Like Dante and Virgil, Beatrice corresponds to a historical personage. Although the details of her life remain uncertain, we know that Dante fell passionately in love with her as a young man and never fell out of it. She has a limited role in Inferno but becomes more prominent in Purgatorio and Paradiso. In fact, Dante’s entire imaginary journey throughout the afterlife aims, in part, to find Beatrice, whom he has lost on Earth because of her early death. Critics generally view Beatrice as an allegorical representation of spiritual love.
A figure that Dante appropriates from Greek mythology, Charon is an old man who ferries souls across the river Acheron to Hell.
A pair of lovers condemned to the Second Circle of Hell for an adulterous love affair that they began after reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere.
The prince of Hell, also referred to as Dis. Lucifer resides at the bottom of the Ninth (and final) Circle of Hell, beneath the Earth’s surface, with his body jutting through the planet’s center. An enormous giant, he has three faces but does not speak; his three mouths are busy chewing three of history’s greatest traitors: Judas, the betrayer of Christ, and Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Julius Caesar.
The king of Crete in Greek mythology, Minos is portrayed by Dante as a giant beast who stands at the Second Circle of Hell, deciding where the souls of sinners shall be sent for torment. Upon hearing a given sinner’s confession, Minos curls his tail around himself a specific number of times to represent the circle of Hell to which the soul should be consigned.
A notoriously corrupt pope who reigned from 1294 to 1303, Boniface made a concerted attempt to increase the political might of the Catholic Church and was thus a political enemy of Dante, who advocated a separation of church and state.
A Ghibelline political leader from Dante’s era who resides among the Heretics in the Sixth Circle of Hell. Farinata is doomed to continue his intense obsession with Florentine politics, which he is now helpless to affect.
The boatman who rows Dante and Virgil across the river Styx.
A Black Guelph, a political enemy of Dante who is now in the Fifth Circle of Hell. Argenti resides among the Wrathful in the river Styx.
The Centaur (half man and half horse) who carries Dante through the First Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell.
A former advisor to Emperor Frederick II, della Vigna committed suicide when he fell into disfavor at the court. He now must spend eternity in the form of a tree.
The massive serpentine monster that transports Dante and Virgil from the Seventh to the Eighth Circle of Hell.
The leader of the Malabranche, the demons who guard the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell. Malacoda (his name means “evil tail”) intentionally furnishes Virgil and Dante with erroneous directions.
A thief punished in the Seventh Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell who prophesies the defeat of the White Guelphs. A defiant soul, Fucci curses God and aims an obscene gesture at Him before Dante journeys on.
The great hero of the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Ulysses was a bold and cunning man who is now imprisoned in the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell among those guilty of Spiritual Theft.
An advisor to Pope Boniface VIII, da Montefeltro was promised anticipatory absolution—forgiveness for a sin given prior to the perpetration of the sin itself. Da Montefeltro now suffers in Hell, since absolution cannot be gained without repentance and it is impossible to repent a sin before committing it.
The giant who transports Dante and Virgil from the Eighth to the Ninth Circle of Hell.
A traitor condemned to the Second Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell. Ugolino gnaws on the head of another damned traitor, Archbishop Ruggieri. When Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino and his sons, denying them food, Ugolino was driven to eat the corpses of his starved sons.
Sinners condemned to the Third Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell. Fra Alberigo and Branca d’Oria are unlike the other sinners Dante encounters: their crimes were deemed to be so great that devils snatched their souls from their living bodies; thus, their souls reside in Hell while their bodies live on, now guided and possessed by demons.