Dante draws the character of Minos both from the Aeneid and from ancient mythology, just as he takes the three-headed dog Cerberus from Greek stories of the afterlife. By placing pagan gods and monsters in an otherwise Christian model of the afterlife, Dante once again demonstrates his tendency to mix vastly different religious and mythological traditions. This tendency speaks to two main aspects underlying the poem. First, it indicates the extent to which mythological and literary sources share space in Dante’s imagination with religious and theological sources; Dante intends his work as a partly cultural and partly spiritual project. But this tendency also reflects Dante’s intentions within the spiritual half of his project: he attempts to show Christianity as a supreme moral order. By subsuming pagan gods into the Christian conception of Hell, he privileges Christian thought as the authoritative system.
Like the punishments administered in the prior circles, the punishments here correspond in grotesque aptness to the sins themselves. Thus, the Lustful, those who were obsessed with the stimulation of the flesh in life, now have their nerves unceasingly stimulated by the storm. Also, they lie prone and in the dark—the conditions in which acts of lust generally take place. Finally, because they failed to restrain the internal tempests of their emotions, external tempests now bludgeon their bodies. The punishment of the Gluttonous, whose sins also involved an obsession with bodily pleasure, is similarly appropriate. Those who excessively pursued pleasure in life now lie in an overabundance of that which disgusts. The excrement that douses them constitutes both the literal and figurative product of their greedy and wasteful consumption.
Although Dante the poet remorselessly assigns illicit lovers to Hell, one senses that he may join his character Dante in pitying them their fates. Dante the poet intends to assert the existence of an objectively just moral universe; yet he also imbues Paolo and Francesca with great human feeling, and the sensual language and romantic style with which he tells their story has made this canto one of the most famous in the poem. Moreover, we know that the poet Dante’s own life was marked by a deep love, his love for Beatrice, which he so beautifully expresses in his earlier poem Vita Nuova. Still, his damnation of the lovers suggests a moral repudiation of his own biographical and poetic past; in a certain sense, The Divine Comedy as a whole can be read as Dante’s attempt to transpose his earthly love for Beatrice onto a spiritual, Christian, morally perfect plane. Part of this process involves renouncing earthly romance, however appealing it might seem, in favor of the saintly perfections of Heaven.
While Dante’s sympathy for Paolo and Francesca remains only implicit, this sympathy translates into occasional breaks with the moral order he asserts, making Dante more lenient in the punishments he assigns. Dido, for example, was a mythological queen who committed suicide because of her unrequited love for Aeneas. Most souls that have committed suicide end up far deeper in Hell, as we see later, but Dante chooses to punish Dido in accordance only with her lesser sin—that of loving too much. Dante’s favoritism emerges even more clearly later in the poem, when we witness his treatment of other souls similarly guilty of multiple sins: to these he assigns punishments in accordance with their gravest crimes.
Canto VI offers the poem’s first extensive discussion of Italian politics, a subject that figures in many of its allegorical as well as its most literal passages. In this case, Dante largely discards allegory to write openly of the political situation in Florence. Because Dante wrote his poem circa 1310–1314, several years after the year in which its plot takes place (1300), he can “predict,” as it were, through the mouth of Ciacco, the political events of the next few years. Ciacco’s depiction of Florence as a city divided refers to the struggle for control between the Black and White Guelphs at the turn of the century. Ciacco describes a bloody fight between the two factions that occurred on May 1, 1300, and which resulted in the Whites gaining power, though only for a few years. The Blacks subsequently returned to power and exiled hundreds of Whites, including Dante, who never forgave the people of Florence for his banishment from his beloved city. He allegedly titled his work “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in character”—a clear indication of his disgust with the infighting that plagued Florence.
This canto also provides further insight into the material characteristics of Dante’s Hell. As Virgil notes, the dead do not have their earthly bodies at the time of Dante’s journey; in fact, the two poets physically tread upon shades as they cross the Third Circle of Hell. Virgil points out that each soul will regain its flesh at the Last Judgment. But this statement raises the question of how these souls without bodies can nonetheless suffer physical torment. We must assume that they possess some sort of solid form; otherwise, Dante would not be able to see them.