The Divine Comedy: Inferno By Dante Alighieri Summary and Analysis Canto XXIII

Summary

The poets walk unattended for a while, and Dante muses on Aesop's fable of the mouse and the frog. Then they arrive at the next chasm which is filled with spirits walking very slowly, as with a heavy burden.

These shades are the Hypocrites. They wear cloaks and hoods that are dazzling with their glitter but lined with lead. Dante and Virgil turn to the left, but they are walking faster than the weighted-down Hypocrites, so Dante asks Virgil to slow down and find a spirit that he might know.

A spirit calls to Dante, recognizing his Tuscan speech, and asks him to wait. Two spirits approach without speaking. Finally, one observes that Dante must be alive because his throat moves. Speaking to Dante, they ask why he has come to this valley of Hypocrites and who he is.

Dante tells them he is a Florentine and is indeed alive; in turn, he asks who they are who weep so bitterly and what their punishment is. They answer that they were of the order of the Jovial Friars and had been named to govern Florence jointly, in order to keep peace.

Dante angrily begins to speak to the friars of their evil, when he sees a figure on the ground held by three stakes. Friar Catalan explains that this is Caiaphas, the high priest who told the council of Pharisees that it was better for Jesus to die than for the whole nation to perish. Therefore, he lies where each one who passes by must step upon him, and his father-in-law (Annas) and the Council are punished in the same manner. Virgil looks at Caiaphas for some time.

Finally, he turns and asks the friar if there is a bridge over the chasm. The friar answers that all were destroyed at the same time, but the travelers may climb out of the ruins of the one nearby, without much difficulty.

Analysis

This canto deals with the Hypocrites, represented by Caiaphas. For their punishment, they are forced to wear coats that are beautiful on the outside, but lined inside with heavy lead, forcing them to bend over and struggle to move. This punishment fits the sin since they glitter on the outside but are so weighted down that there is no chance of spiritual progress.

Dante uses the fable of the mouse and the frog (then attributed to Aesop) as an allegory to describe the scene in Cantos XXII between the demons and the escaped sinner. The fable goes that a mouse wanted to cross a pond and asked a frog to help him. The frog, wanting to drown the mouse, suggested that he take the mouse across on his back. The mouse agreed, but was afraid of falling off, so the frog suggested that the mouse tie himself to the frog. When they reach the middle of the pond, the frog decides to dive under and pull the mouse with him. However, a hawk, seeing the struggling mouse, catches it, taking the frog with him. In Dante's comparison, the sinner represents the mouse and the demons that fell into the pitch represent the frog. There are several disagreements about which creature represents what.

Virgil, the ever-diligent guide, returns to his tender nature when possible harm may come to Dante. He lifts Dante like a son and bears him safely to the bottom of the sixth pit. Dante is relieved at this action, which again confirms Virgil's fitness as a guide.

Dante's two themes of religion and politics collide again in the sixth pit. The Jovial Friars were an order founded to keep peace and enforce order. Of the two friars that Dante encounters here, one was a Guelph and one was a Ghibelline. Both friars were jointly appointed to help bring peace to Florence. However, their reign resulted in much bloodshed and violence, and they were shortly removed from office.

Because the chasm of the Hypocrites is chiefly filled with sinners with whom religion played a major role in their damnation, it is fitting that Caiaphas, High Priest of the Jews, is the chief sinner of the pit, having been crucified to the ground to suffer being walked upon for all eternity. Caiaphas advised Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death on the cross for the supposed benefit of the city. Virgil marvels at his appearance because he was not yet there when Virgil made his first trip to the depths of Hell.

In the circle of the Hypocrites, Dante is again recognized as being alive, this time because his throat moves as he talks. The cloaks of the Hypocrites, which dazzle the eye, actually are instruments of torture. Moreover, the heavy garments they wear force the sinners to adopt a decorous and subdued attitude which is entirely in character with their worldly habit of hiding a vicious nature beneath a virtuous and holy appearance.

Dante has placed the Hypocrites far down in the circles of Hell. Their presence is a restatement of Dante's definition of sin as perversion of the intellect. Few sins can equal the deliberate cloaking of one's true character and feelings in a false aspect of piety, tolerance or honesty.

Glossary

Aesop real or legendary Greek author of fables; supposed to have lived in the sixth century b.c.

Frederick's capes Frederick II executed people by placing them in a leaden shell which was then melted around them.

Jovial Friars the nickname of the monks of the Glorious Virgin Mary from Bolongna.

Bolognese of Bologna, its people, or their dialect.

Pharisees a member of an ancient Jewish party or fellowship that carefully observed the written law but also accepted the oral (or traditional) law; advocated democratization of religious practices; mainly they hated Jesus for questioning their authority.

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