“Why we should read Dante as well as Shakespeare”

“Dante can seem overwhelming. T.S. Eliot’s peremptory declaration that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: there is no third’ is more likely to be off-putting these days than inspiring. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being staged and filmed, and in all sorts of ways, with big names in the big parts, and when we see them we can connect with the characters and the issues with not too much effort.

Dante is much more remote – a medieval Italian author, writing about a trip he claims to have made through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise at Easter 1300, escorted first by a very dead poet, Virgil, and then by his dead beloved, Beatrice. and meeting the souls of lots of people we only vaguely know of, if we’ve heard of them at all. First he sees the damned being punished in ways we are likely to find grotesque or repulsive. And then, when he meets souls working their way towards heavenly bliss or already enjoying it, there are increasing doses of philosophy and theology for us to digest.

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The addictiveness is evident from the fact that Dante enthusiasts, Christian or not, find it hard to imagine Hell in any other way, and spend happy minutes musing about which circle is best suited to some particular friend, enemy or public figure. Dante thought Paradise was much more difficult to get into and much more difficult to describe. We are certainly not accustomed to prolonged evocations of happiness. Paradiso gives us one way, and an astoundingly dynamic one, of thinking about what human happiness might ultimately be.”    –Peter Hainsworth, Oxford University Press Blog, February 27, 2015