Summary and Analysis Cantos XXXII-XXIII



Whereas earlier, Dante searched for rhymes that would help alleviate the suffering of the shades in the upper circles, now he calls out for "rhymes rugged and harsh and hoarse/ fit for the hideous hole" [Sayers' translation] — horrible words befitting the utter horror of this most horrendous place, the very bottom of Hell, reserved for the most heinous sinners.

A soul cries out for Dante to be careful not to tread on the heads of the souls in that frozen lake, and Dante turns and sees that the sinners are frozen according to their sin. Dante and Virgil are in the first of four rounds of the final circle, Cocytus. The first round is called Caina, and the sinners here have their heads bowed toward the ice, chattering their teeth and crying.

Dante looks around and sees two sinners clamped tightly together, breast-to-breast, and asks them who they are, to which they do not reply but butt their heads together like goats. A nearby sinner with his ears frozen off replies that these two were brothers, and that there are no two more deserving of punishment in all of Caina than these two. He goes on to name other sinners, and finally himself.

Moving further towards the center of Hell, Dante accidentally kicks the face of a sinner, who yells at Dante, asking him why he would want to cause him more pain. Dante asks Virgil for a moment to speak with the sinner, and his wish is granted. The sinner asks Dante who he thinks he is, kicking the faces of the sinners in Antenora, the second round of the ninth circle. Dante replies that if the shade tells him his name, he will make him famous on Earth. The shade does not want to comply, and Dante grabs a handful of the shade's hair and threatens to tear it out if he does not give his name. The shade says he does not care if Dante should rip until his brain lies bare; he will not tell, to which Dante rips out tufts of the sinner's hair. A nearby sinner tells Dante the name of the reluctant sinner, Bocca, who then will not shut up as Dante commands, telling him the names of many other sinners in the round with him.

Upon leaving Bocca, Dante comes across two sinners in such close proximity that one is feeding off of the back of the other's neck. Dante offers to tell the sinner's story in the upper world, if the sinner would tell it.

Canto XXXIII opens with the sinner's tale. He was Count Ugolino, and the soul he feeds upon was Archbishop Ruggieri, on whom he trusted. Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino and his four sons in a tower, nailed the doors shut, and starved them all to death. Ugolino is forced to watch his young boys starve one by one. And his hatred for Ruggieri increases with each of his son's death. Once through with his long and passionate tale, Ugolino goes back to feeding on Ruggieri.

As the poets move along, they come to a place where the souls are not placed vertically in the ice, but they are supine with only their faces raised out of the ice. As a result, their tears freeze in their eyes, creating little crystal visors over their eye sockets. Dante is beginning to feel chilled and also feels a wind blowing over the ice — Virgil says that the source of the wind will soon be known.

One of the shades locked up to the face in the ice of Ptolomea, the third round of the ninth circle, begs Dante to remove the sheath of ice over his eyes so that he may cry freely for a while. Dante promises to do so if the shade tells him his name, saying that he will go to the last rim of the ice if he does not keep his promise. The shade complies, saying that he was Friar Albergio.

Dante, sure that Friar Albergio is not yet dead, is shocked at this confession. Albergio tells Dante that his sin was so terrible that the moment he committed it, he was taken out of his body and thrust here, and that a demon took the place of his soul in his worldly body. He names another person that Dante knows for certain is alive that this has also happened to, and Dante does not believe him, though the shade is convincing. Dante refuses to keep his promise to remove the frozen tears from the shade's eyes, saying that rudeness in Hell is a courtesy. Dante makes a plea to the city of Genoa about this sinner, telling them that they have a demon in their midst, and says that he wishes the whole lot of them driven from the Earth.


Dante again invokes the Muses to help him write what he sees, just as he had done at the beginning of his journey. This time the invocation is longer and even more passionate. He knows that this portion of the journey is going to be harsh and horrible, and he hopes that he has the words for it.

Dante the Poet is fully aware that the noble art of poetry is not designed to describe the horrors of this dreadful abode. Poetry is not usually devoted to harsh and grating and vulgar sounds. Thus, he invokes the Muses of Poetry to help describe horrors in poetic terms.

The geography of the final pit of Hell is explained in these two cantos. There are four rounds in this circle of traitors. The first, Caina, reserved for those who were traitors to their kin, is named for the Biblical Cain who slew his brother, Abel. Remember also that Francesca (Canto V), in her story, says that Caina awaits hers and Paolo's murderer, Paolo's brother. The sinners that Dante finds here are two brothers who killed one another in a squabble over their inheritance, hence they must spend all of eternity locked together, bickering and butting heads.

Antenora is named for the Trojan Antenor who was believed to have betrayed Troy to the Greeks — this round is for those who were treacherous to their country. Here, Dante finds sinners deeper in the ice, unable to move their heads, and the sinner Bocca, a Florentine traitor, which reinforces Dante's political theme as well. Also residing here are Ugolino (a Guelph) and Ruggieri (a Ghibelline), both traitors to their country who conspired with each other to take over a certain faction of the Guelphs. Ptolomea, named for those sinners treacherous to guests and hosts, is the third round. It is named after Ptolomey, a captain of Jericho and son-in-law of Simon the high priest. Ptolomey arranged a banquet honoring Simon and his two sons and then treacherously murdered them, while they were his guests. Here, the sinners lie supine with only their faces exposed, and here Dante discovers two sinners that were so treacherous to guests that they immediately were thrown out of their bodies and into Hell, and a demon was sent to inhabit their bodies on Earth. This action is contrary to Dante's idea of penitence to achieve Grace — these sinners did not have a chance to give penance, though it is apparent that Dante felt that this sin was bad enough to warrant immediate damnation.

The fourth and final round of the ninth circle, Judecca, is illustrated in the final canto. It is named after Judas Iscariot, who betrayed his lord and master, Jesus Christ.

Dante is indeed ready for the end of his journey. Twice in these cantos he shows no pity or sympathy for certain sinners; once, with a furious temper, he attacks one of the frozen spirits, simply for the satisfaction of knowing its name so he can tell his story on Earth. Unlike the spirits in the upper circles who ask to be remembered, the spirits in this part of Hell want to be forgotten because of their vicious crimes. If Dante treats theses spirits badly, he will show no compassion whatsoever because of the severity of their crimes on Earth.

The famous story of Count Ugolino gnawing on the head and brainpan of Archbishop Ruggieri is at the end of Canto XXXII. Historically, it was publicly known that Ugolino was captured and put to death by Ruggieri, but the manner of his death was so cruel that Dante thought the world should know the tragic story.

Dante, seeing the two bound together, wonders why Ugolino so beastly hungers after his neighbor.

Ugolino had been in prison for several months with his four young sons. One morning he awoke from a terrible dream and heard his children begging for food, and at the same time, he heard the doors of the tower being nailed shut. He knew this was the death knoll for him and his sons, and he had to watch them one by one cry out for food until they were all dead.

This eating and gnawing at flesh becomes central to "little Anselmo's" request to his father: "Thou didst clothe us with this wretched flesh, and it would be less painful if you eat of us." But of course Ugolino cannot eat of his own son's flesh. Then, as he sees each child die one by one, "starvation did what grieving could not do." Ugolino died and in Hell, is joined together with the enemy who starved his children and who, now, becomes the savage feast for him to munch on for eternity.

Dante cannot fathom what rage justifies such horrible and bestial actions, and he promises to reveal to the world the cause of Ugolino's savagery. Thus, he relates his story in Canto XXXIII from the viewpoint of the man who has been betrayed. By sympathizing with the victim, it is not apparent that Ugolino, himself, is a traitor who fully deserves his place in Hell. But, the four children are innocents and should not have become Ruggieri's victims. Furthermore, if Ugolino's hatred is so extreme, remember that no amount of punishment will satisfy his desire for revenge — it will never be satiated. He can never be revenged.

Ugolino's punishment is the concept of retaliation. This is a masterful stroke on Dante's part, for in the very depths of Hell, how else can Dante evoke pity for someone whose crime is as monstrous as was Ugolino's? Note, therefore, that Ugolino is here in Hell as a traitor because he betrayed his own party to Ruggieri, but also, that he is here in the poem as the betrayed. Ugolino may be said to be both the victim of divine justice and also the instrument of it, in that he also punishes his betrayer, Ruggieri.

It might be interesting to the historical-oriented mind that Ugolino was imprisoned with two middle-aged sons and two grandsons. But, this is history, and Dante changed the story to gain a more imaginative situation.

The law of retribution is the most powerful: In life Ruggieri starved Ugolino; in Hell, Ruggieri becomes food for his victim.


Caina the first round in Circle IX; named after Cain.

Foccaccia murdered his cousin, causing a great feud between the Black and the White Guelphs.

Sassol Macheroni appointed as guardian of his nephew and murdered him to get the inheritance.

Camicion de' Pazzi murdered a kinsman.

Carlin traitor to his country, will go to the next circle.

Antenora second round of Circle IX.

Bocca a Florentine traitor.

Buoso da Duera accepted a political bribe.

Beccheria abbot that plotted with the Ghibellines; the Guelphs cut off his head.

Gianni de' Soldanier Ghibelline deserter.

Ganelon infamous betrayer of his master Roland, Charlemagne's greatest warrior, in the French epic "Song of Roland."

Pisa commune in Tuscany, Western Italy, on the Arno River.

Gualandi, Sismondi and Lanfranchi Ghibelline nobles.

Friar Albergio Jovial Friar; killed his brother at a banquet he hosted; the code was "bring in the fruit."

Atropos Greek and Roman Mythology. the one of the three Fates who cuts the thread of life.

Branca D'Oria Ghibelline who killed his father-in-law at a banquet he hosted.

Michael Zanche father-in-law to Branca D'Oria; can be found in the sticky pitch of Canto XXII.