Activities for Dante's Inferno

Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Select an Activity that interests you; make a copy of the Activity question to begin your response. Post your Activity to the Blackboard Activity 9: Dante's Inferno Forum.

In Canto 5 of the Inferno, Paolo and Francesca personify the ethical dilemmas of courtly love, and they are punished in hell for their love. Who or what, exactly, was to blame for their going to hell? Explain this in detail, using the text to support your comments.
All the women in the Inferno seem to be there for misconduct connected to sexuality. Identify some of the women in the Inferno and specify exactly what their sins were and how their punishments are suited to their crimes. Now, can you identify any men who are in hell for sexual crimes? Are these cases similar to the women's, or different? Explain and support your responses with examples from the text.
The Inferno presents a thoroughly medieval Christian vision of hell, although it draws heavily on the classical past, especially Virgil's Aeneid. Identify some elements in the Inferno that you think are specifically Christian, and some that you suspect are leftovers from pagan antiquity. Explain how both work together in the text to create Dante's special medieval vision of hell.
A subtitle for the Inferno could be "the punishment fits the crime." Give some examples of this from the text and discuss whether or not you agree with Dante that these are appropriate punishments for the crimes committed. Explain why you think this concept of the punishment fitting the crime was important to Dante. Support your comments with specific examples from the text.
Canto 26 tells about Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus), who is in one of the lower circles of hell, because he was an evil counselor. How do you think the Greek hero Odysseus degenerated into the Christian villain Ulysses? Support your ideas with examples from the materials you have read during this course as well as a close reading of Canto 26.
Compare Tennyson's poem Ulysses with Dante's representation of him in Canto 26. Why does Dante disapprove of Ulysses? Why does Tennyson approve of him? Can you think of any interesting ideas about the changed times which could account for at least some of this change?
Popul Vuh, part 3, has its own underworld, Xibalba, ruled by the terrible Lords of Death. Compare/contrast this vision of the underworld with Dante's Inferno; especially note interesting similarities/differences between Satan and the Lords of Death. If you want to do this for double credit, here are links to extended sections of The Popul Vuh, so that you can read more of this amazing Mayan epic of creation and compare/contrast it in depth to Dante's Inferno.
Read The Popul Vuh online, so you get a fuller sense of the story than in the textbook selection. Then review the creation story in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and think about any interesting/relevant parallels and significant differences between the two.
In part 3 of Popul Vuh, two heroes enter Xibalba and conquer the Lords of Death, killing them. Is there anything at all in Dante's Inferno that remind you of this conquest? If so, explain, supporting your ideas with specific examples from both texts.
In Canto 28, Dante represents Mahomet as a demonic monster. This is not unlike the representation of the Muslim Saracens in the Song of Roland. Compare the representations of Muslim beliefs in the two poems and see if you have any ideas why there was such intense hatred of Muslims in the Catholic Middle ages as you can see in these poems. Do you think it was a response to the Crusades? To the developing competition that Europe was beginning to offer the Muslim world? To what? You might want to look in a good history book or encyclopedia to get some more concrete information on this disturbing issue. Support your ideas with specific examples from Dante's Inferno and Roland. This is potentially worth double credit (up to 100 points) if you do a wonderful job with it. Be sure to document your sources.

If you were Dante (or more appropriately, Minos, who assigns sinners their punishment in Hell) where would you place some of today's infamous newsmakers in the Divine Comedy's structure of hell and why?

On the other hand, this essay: "The Uncanonical Dante: The Divine Comedy And Islamic Philosophy: by Paul A. Cantor, examines elements in Dante that derive from Islamic philosophers, especially "AverroŽs, or Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd, to give him his full Arabic name." After reading the essay carefully, look for elements in Dante that are NOT anti-Islamic, but actually stem from Islamic culture or an awareness of its importance.  This is potentially worth double credit (up to 100 points) if you do a wonderful job with it. Be sure to document your sources.
Dante was the medieval master of political correctness in his Divine Comedy, even though he got into plenty of trouble for siding with the wrong (e.g. losing) side politically in the real world.  Look through a few of the cantos and see who you can find in hell because Dante did not like his principles and/or politics. Are there many? Do you agree with Dante that they belong in hell? Use specific examples from the Inferno to support your ideas.
Examine the role of Virgil in the Inferno. Why do you think Dante chose him as his guide? What kind of help could Virgil offer to Dante? What could Virgil not do for Dante? What does this have to do with Virgil being a pre-Christian poet? Support your ideas with examples from the text.
Do a survey of your favorite monsters in the Inferno. What traits do they share? Are they like other monsters you've read about, or do they have special qualities unique to the Inferno? Support your main points with specific examples of monsters from the Inferno and elsewhere.
Why is Satan locked in ice at the bottom of hell? Do you think this is an appropriate place for him? Explain in some detail just what this Satan is and what his role is in the Inferno.
First, list the sins of the nine circles in descending order. Then, make a list of what you consider to be modern sins in descending order, from least to most awful. Compare/contrast your list to Dante's in some detail. How are the two lists similar; how are they different? And so what?
A fairly recent film, What Dreams May Come (starring Robin Williams), presents a view of the afterlife that uses some ideas and images from Dante's Inferno. It also is a thoughtful, visually wonderful, representation of less punitive concepts of life after death. Watch the film, paying close attention to the explanations given about why suicides go to hell. Then, compare this to Dante's vision of suicides and others in hell. What interesting similarities and/or differences do you find? So what? Be sure to use specific examples from both the film and the poem to support your ideas.  
Make up an interesting question of your own that relates to Dante's Inferno and answer it in full detail. Check with me first to get approval for the topic.


(c) Diane Thompson: 8/14/98; updated 01/25/2012