Playing Dante in 2015

Dante’s Inferno is a text that is as difficult to read as it is fascinating. However fun it is to teach, it can be frustrating for students to encounter the hundreds of characters whose names are devoid of meaning and context. Like Dante himself, students need a guide to take them through Hell. But how to teach them to guide themselves?

In line with my Fren 1200 course goals to make medieval readings accessible and enjoyable for students, I assign an unusual adaptation of the epic poem, Marcus Sanders, Doug Harvey, Sandow Birk’s contemporary adaptation that re-imagines Dante-the-pilgrim as a modern surfer dude as he wanders around a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles that serves as Dis, the city of hell (see here). While the already-dated early 2000s language does not in any way capture the poetic quality of Dante’s verse, this translation/adaptation helps students understand the tone of the original by adding contemporary (and well-known post-Dante) figures to the groupings in hell. Thus, when Bill Clinton is swept up in the storm with the lusters, and Stephen Hawking burns with heretical medieval scientists, students grasp how Dante’s contemporaries encountered the poem through immediate recognition of its characters.

To drive the point home, students are asked to play Dante themselves for this text’s online reading quiz. They each had to pick one real person and one fictional, place each of them in the appropriate circle of Hell as befitting their sin, and describe a punishment that fits the crime, as Dante did.

Students’ responses were creative! Among those sent to the eternal flames were the thief from Beowulf, WWII traitor Philippe Pétain, Anakin Skywalker, Kim Jong-Un, Lord Voldemort, Mr. Krabs from Spongebob, Bernie Madoff, Zeus, Donald Trump, Ganelon, Aécio Neves, Benedict Arnold, Walder Frey, and many characters from the medieval stories we have read in class.

Here are a few examples of students who captured not only the spirit of Dante, but his voice as well:

1st Circle

“As Virgil lead me past the entrance to eternal punishment, he described his dwelling in Limbo. Virgil explained that souls here were not in the wrong except for the fact that everyone here was not baptized. Some were just unlucky to live before the time of Jesus, others never heard of him or were not Christian. As we made our way through the crowd, I heard a heated debate going on among a group of souls. If my eyes did not fool me, I saw some greek philosophers arguing with a man dressed in robes from India. Virgil and I approached the group and saw that it was Buddah who was arguing with the greek philosophers. The men were in the midst of a debate about what the stars in the sky meant, not that they would ever see them again. We decided not to interrupt as they seemed quite committed to the argument. We continued on but my mind was occupied with how wrong this was. Buddah did everything in his life to spread peace throughout the world yet he will never reach Heaven because of not being baptized. I kept the thoughts to myself as I had no power to change the way things were in this place of eternal punishment.”

7th Circle

“As Virgil and I walked through the second ring of the seventh circle we came across a forest of trees that contained harpies who continuously ate the leaves off of the trees. I could hear moaning and crying but had no idea where it was coming from. Virgil noticed my curious look and said, ‘If you snap a twig off any of the trees, you’ll see who’s really crying.’ I broke of the branch and a voice said, ‘Hey, who just did that! What did I ever to do deserve that.’ It was then I realized it was the trees who were making this noise. Virgil calmed the tree down then asked, ‘maybe now you could tell us the story of your life.’ ‘My name in life was Kurt Cobain. I committed suicide at the age of twenty seven, I had been miserable with stomach pains, family life and drug addiction for as long as I remember. I hated playing concerts and hated everything else my life had become. So now I am dammed here to be this tree and have harpies eat at my leaves just like all these other sinners down here.’ I really felt bad for the poor man. He was miserable and life and now he is miserable in death. At least have him god could have stuck him in purgatory since his life was so awful. But, gods laws are clear and he should have known what was coming to him. even if he didn’t commit suicide he would have been stuck here from harming his body through drug use anyways.”

“Virgil and I have been traveling through each circle, and I naively thought that it could not get any worse than the previous circle. Virgil informed me of the nature of the Seventh Circle and that it is reserved for those who commit violence against themselves, against others, and against property. He rambled on as we walked by a river of blood and fire. I saw a sinking man in the river screaming ‘Blood and Fire’ over and over. There was something strange about him. The other souls were devastated about their condition but this one man seemed to almost enjoy it. I could not solve this riddle until Virgil saw I had fallen behind and came up to me and beckoned me forward. I asked Virgil ‘Who is that man in the river? Does he seem different to you?’ Virgil paused for a moment and sighed. ‘That man,’ he said, ‘is the man they call The Mad King. His full name was Aerys II Targaryen and he loved blood and fire, especially the blood of innocents, and the blood of those he burned alive in his court. I guess you could say he is in his element.’ I shuddered at the thought of a man who could enjoy burning others alive in front of an audience. I followed Virgil as he moved on, as I could not stand the sight of the Mad King any longer.”

8th Circle

‘As Virgil and I were climbing the rubble of the Boulders through the eighth tier of the eighth circle of hell. From where I stood I could see all the fires burning and Virgil told me that each individual fire had a different sinner in it . This was their eternal punishment. I asked him who is trapped inside that especially big flame. He replied, ‘Oh that is Denethor II. He advised his son Faramir to retake Osgiliath. Denethor knew this mission would fail but sent his son to do it anyway. Faramir knowing this took as few men as possible to try and minimize casualties.’ He deserves worse than that. The whole battle for middle earth could have been lost if too many men went to try and save Osgiliath. I would either be dead or speaking orc right now if it wasn’t for Faramir.”

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