Dantes Divine Comedy. Discuss what you consider to be the most important allegorical features of the journey of Ulysses in the Inferno, and give your interpretation of their meaning.

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Discuss what you consider to be the most important allegorical features of the journey of Ulysses in the Inferno, and give your interpretation of their meaning.

Word Count: 2443

Ulysses represents great ambiguity for Dante both as the pilgrim and as the poet. Is he the hero of Greek Cicero and Seneca whose love of knowledge, in Dante’s adaptation, desires to go beyond all earthly boundaries in order to seek human knowledge? On the other hand is he the Ulysses of Latin Virgil and Ovid, the man of cunning and manipulation, who seeks knowledge of the external world and discards all others and more importantly discards all virtue? Canto 26 is set among the eighth ditch of the eighth circle of Hell, a scene in which the sinners are punished in flames that burn inward, and the central feature is a ‘cloven-crested flame’ which embodies the shades of Ulysses and Diomed. In all of this Dante creates some of the most complex and intriguing allegory in the whole of the Divine Comedy. The significance of this allegory is based upon the interpretation of Ulysses’ journey. To understand the allegories you first must understand the interpretations. To understand the interpretations you first must understand the role of Dante. This preface, to the discussion of the most important allegorical features, will outline Dante's duality, and the two main competing interpretations of Ulysses’ journey – it will set the context.

To be considered first is Dante’s dual relationship to the Divine Comedy. He is both the pilgrim experiencing the journey, and the poet who creates the reality to which he narrates the experience of the pilgrim. This narration is from a salvific retrospection on the journey of the pilgrim, where the poet has already, in a metaphorical sense, lived the story and highlights the pilgrim’s human flaws and weaknesses. This gives a dichotomy of Dante so as it were the naïve pilgrim and the matured poet. This mode of being for Dante, in relation to the poetry, is important because only by juxtaposing the audience into the eyes of the pilgrim and into the eyes of the poet can the significance of the journey be realised. Leading on from the last point, in order to understand the complexity of the allegory entwined within this canto, you need to first acknowledge what the perception Dante has of Ulysses, in his duality as both the pilgrim and the poet. In essence, the poet looking back on the pilgrim is self-reflective. This introspective aspect can also be conveyed as the underlying feature of the Divine Comedy. Only when you truly examine yourself and go down into the depths of your soul, to the depths of hell, and understand not just all of your virtue but all of your vice, can you change, can you begin on the pilgrimage of salvation.

A feature of medieval literature, just like that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, is that they are layered in interpretation, meaning, morals, and other poetic devices. The allegory contained within the words therefore fits the readers’ perception of what is unfolding. It is necessary then to understand the character of Ulysses in order to understand the allegory.

There are two main competing interpretations of Ulysses. The first argument focuses on Dante’s admiration of Ulysses. This Ulysses is a glorified hero of antiquity, an interpretation supported by both Fubini and Momigliano.  He is an intellectual who strives to go beyond the earthly limits of this world in search of understanding. It is the legendary figure who bought glory to the Greeks against the Trojans using the strategy of the wooden horse. This plan of the Trojan horse is one of the three reasons as stated by Virgil as to why Ulysses resides in Hell and not with the other great Pagans in Limbo. The two remaining reasons for Ulysses' perdition in this canto are that he lured Achilles, with the help of his accomplice Diomed, to his death at the battle of Troy, and that they are punished for the theft of the statues which protected the city of Troy.

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In contrast the opposing view sees Ulysses as a man of cunning. He is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle of Hell which is noted as being for those of fraudulent counsel. In this interpretation it asserts that Ulysses is in Hell not just for the three reasons outlined by Virgil, but also for manipulating people for his own ends – as seen in the great voyage of Ulysses. The embodiment of this interpretation can be seen when to the crew of his ship Ulysses proclaims

                        ‘“Brothers,” I said, “a hundred thousand

                        perils you have passed and reached ...

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