Summary and Analysis
Dante and Virgil descend to the second circle, this one smaller than the first. This is the actual beginning of Hell where the sinners are punished for their sins. Dante witnesses Minos, a great beast, examining each soul as it stands for judgment.
Minos hears the souls confess their sins, and then wraps his tail around himself to determine the number of the circle where the sinner belongs. Minos tells Dante to beware of where he goes and to whom he turns. Minos cautions Dante against entering, but Virgil silences him, first by asking him why he too questions Dante (as Charon did), and then by telling him, in the same words he used to tell Charon, that it was willed, and what is willed must occur. (The word "Heaven" is not used, here or anywhere else in Hell.)
Dante beholds a place completely dark, in which there is noise worse than that of a storm at sea. Lamenting, moaning, and shrieking, the spirits are whirled and swept by an unceasing storm. Dante learns that these are the spirits doomed by carnal lust. He asks the names of some that are blown past, and Virgil answers with their names and some knowledge of their stories.
Dante then asks particularly to speak to two sinners who are together, and Virgil tells him to call them to him in the name of love. They come, and one thanks Dante for his pity and wishes him peace, and she then tells their story. She reveals first that a lower circle of Hell waits for the man who murdered them. With bowed head, Dante tells Virgil he is thinking of the "sweet thoughts and desires" that brought the lovers to this place. Calling Francesca by name, he asks her to explain how she and her lover were lured into sin.
Francesca replies that a book of the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere caused their downfall. They were alone, reading it aloud, and so many parts of the book seemed to tell of their own love. They kissed, and the book was forgotten. "We read no more that day."
During her story, the other spirit weeps bitterly, and Dante is so moved by pity that he also weeps — and faints.
This second circle is the true beginning of Hell and is also where the true punishments of Hell begin, and Minos, the mythological king of Crete, sits in judgment of the damned souls.
Circle II is the circle of carnal lust. The sinners are tossed and whirled by the winds, as in life they felt themselves — helpless in the tempests of passion. This canto also begins descriptions of the circles devoted to the sins of incontinence: the sins of the appetite, the sins of self-indulgence, and the sins of passion.
Minos, like the other guardians of Hell, does not want to admit Dante, a living being still capable of redemption, but Virgil forces him to do so. Among those whom Dante sees in Circle II are people such as Cleopatra, Dido, and Helen. Some of these women, besides being adulteresses, have also committed suicide. Therefore, the question immediately arises as to why they are not deeper down in Hell in the circle reserved for suicides. Remember that in Dante's Hell, a person is judged by his own standards, that is, by the standards of the society in which he lived. For example, in classical times, suicide wasn't considered a sin, but adultery was. Therefore, the spirit is judged by the ethics by which he or she lived and is condemned for adultery, not suicide.
Dante sees Paolo and Francesca and calls them to him in the name of love — a mild conjuration at Virgil's insistence. Francesca tells their story; Paolo can only weep. Francesca da Rimini was the wife of Gianciotto, the deformed older brother of Paolo, who was a beautiful youth. Theirs was a marriage of alliance, and it continued for some ten years before Paolo and Francesca were caught in the compromising situation described in the poem. Gianciotto promptly murdered them both, for which he is confined in the lowest circle of Hell.
For modern readers, understanding why Dante considered adultery, or lustfulness, to be the least hateful of the sins of incontinence is sometimes difficult. As the intellectual basis of Hell, Dante thought of Hell as a place where the sinner deliberately chose his or her sin and failed to repent. This is particularly true of the lower circles, which include malice and fraud. In the example of Francesca and Paolo, however, Francesca did not deliberately choose adultery; hers was a gentle lapsing into love for Paolo, a matter of incontinence, and a weakness of will. Only the fact that her husband killed her in the moment of adultery allowed her no opportunity to repent, and for this reason, she is condemned to Hell.
Francesca is passionate, certainly capable of sin, and certainly guilty of sin, but she represents the woman whose only concern is for the man she loves, not her immortal soul. She found her only happiness, and now her misery, in Paolo's love. Her love was her heaven; it is now her hell.
In Hell, sinners retain all those qualities for which they were damned, and they remain the same throughout eternity; that is, the soul is depicted in Hell with the exact characteristics that condemned it to Hell in the first place. Consequently, as Francesca loved Paolo in the human world, throughout eternity she will love him in Hell. But, the lovers are damned because they will not change, and because they will never cease to love, they can never be redeemed. Dante represents this fact metaphorically by placing Paolo close to Francesca and by having the two of them being buffeted about together through this circle of Hell for eternity.
By reading the story of Francesca, one can perhaps understand better the intellectual basis by which Dante depicts the other sins in Hell. He chooses a character that represents a sin; he then expresses poetically the person who committed the sin. Francesca is not perhaps truly representative of the sin of this circle, and "carnal lust" seems a harsh term for her feelings, but Dante chose her story to make his point: The sin in Circle II is a sin of incontinence, weakness of will, and falling from grace through inaction of conscience. Many times in Hell, Dante responds sympathetically or with pity to some of these lost souls.
This canto clearly illustrates the difference in the two Personae: Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet. Dante the Pilgrim weeps and suffers with those who are suffering their punishments. He reacts to Francesca's love for Paolo, her horrible betrayal, and her punishment so strongly that he faints. Yet it is Dante the Poet who put her in Hell.
bestial like a beast in qualities or behavior; brutish or savage; brutal, coarse, vile, and so on.
Minos Greek Mythology. a king of Crete, son of Zeus by Europa; after he dies he becomes one of the three judges of the dead in the lower world. In mythology, Minos is a compassionate judge. He refused to judge his wife Paesaphe when she had an affair with a bull, producing the Minotaur, because he had never been exposed to such violent passions. Dante ignores this and makes Minos into a stern and horribly bestial judge.
wherries in this canto, the term suggests fast movement.
Semiramis Babalonian Legend. a queen of Assyria noted for her beauty, wisdom, and sexual exploits; reputed founder of Babylon; based on a historical queen of the ninth century b.c.
Ninus husband of Semiramis.
Dido Roman Mythology. founder and queen of Carthage: in Aeneid she falls in love with Aeneas and kills herself when he leaves her.
Sichaeus husband of Dido.
Cleopatra c. 69-30 b.c.; queen of Egypt (51-49; 48-30); mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Helen Greek Legend. the beautiful wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta; the Trojan War is started because of her abduction by Paris to Troy.
Achilles Greek Mythology. Greek warrior and leader in the Trojan War who kills Hector and is killed by Paris with an arrow that strikes his only vulnerable spot, his heel; he is the hero of Homer's Iliad.
Paris Greek Legend. a son of Priam, king of Troy; his kidnapping of Helen, wife of Menelaus, causes the Trojan War.
Tristan Arthurian Legend. a knight sent to Ireland by King Mark of Cornwall to bring back the princess Isolde to be the king's bride. Isolde and Tristan fall in love and tragically die together.
Po river in northern Italy, flowing from the Cottian Alps east into the Adriatic.
Caina the first ring of the last circle in Hell, according to Dante.
Lancelot Arthurian Legend. the most celebrated of the Knights of the Round Table and the lover of Guinevere.