Thou Shalt Not: The Mitigation of Adultery and Its Implications in Dante’s Inferno and Boccaccio’s Decameron
By Benjamin Cox
Published Online (2003)
Introduction: Since its inception, Christianity has been vexed by human sexuality. Intellectual and moral battles have raged constantly over the merits of celibacy, the necessity for self-control, and the line between procreation and physical pleasure. But despite the Church’s vacillating view on sexuality in general, one fact remains immutable: God Himself decreed that thou shalt not commit adultery, nor shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s wife. Despite this proscription, two great Renaissance writers use adultery as a foil for their commentaries on the nature of human love and sexuality. In his monumental work, The Inferno, Dante Alighieri shows remarkable compassion for the souls of tragic lovers, yet feels obligated to acknowledge the sin of their actions. Giovanni Boccaccio, taking Dante’s affirmation of the power of human passion one step further, fills the Decameron with many tales of sexually frustrated wives who seek and find release with impunity. Despite their obligatory obeisance to the established moral order, each author in his own way acts as an apologist for adulterers. And though he may not necessarily excuse their transgressions, each displays a definite sympathy towards their plight and an acceptance of the very human forces that drive their actions.