By Peter Levine
Philosophy and Literature Vol.23:2 (1999)
Introduction: The vast majority of Dante’s readers have found Francesca da Rimini an acutely sympathetic figure-a tragic heroine. Yet Dante damned her, pronouncing a stern and challenging moral judgment. His decision to place her in Hell is especially surprising when we consider that she is almost chaste compared to the other souls in the Circle of the Lustful. All she did was to fall in love with her brother-in-law – after being tricked into marriage, if we believe Boccaccio’s commentary-and her husband murdered her before she had a chance to repent. Compare Semiramis, the Assyrian queen, who legalized incest in order to justify her own obsession, or the Paris of medieval legend, who lured Achilles into a temple by arranging a sexual encounter and then killed him.
Dante’s judgment is especially surprising when we learn that Francesca was a real woman, probably an actual murder victim, and that Dante was closely connected to her family. Late in life, banished from Florence, he found shelter in the home of Guido Novello da Polenta, who was a love poet and Francesca’s nephew. Dante thus finished the Divine Comedy in the very household where Francesca was born, as part of her family. In the text, she is portrayed vividly and sympathetically, as if Dante had heard much about her. She even utters a phrase that appears in one of Guido Novello’s sweet, ingenuous love sonnets. We cannot be sure who originally wrote this phrase, but its appearance in the Divine Comedy suggests one of two theories . Either Guido so admired Dante’s portrait of his murdered aunt that he quoted her speech from the Inferno, or else Dante placed Guido’s words in Francesca’s mouth as homage to his friend.