Dante's Divine Comedy

Taught By Multiple Professors
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not about literature This is a strange course. For now I'm only going to talk about the Inferno. The lecturers approach the Divine Comedy as entertainment for true believers at the expense of the punished sinners. Every lecture is "let's see how many ways we can find them stupid and reprehensible". I'm not going to read this in Italian, but it's hard for me to believe that there's no literature here, that we're supposed to look at this from the outside as the righteous waiting for Dante learn enough so that he won't have any more sympathy for these impossible creeps. That being said, there is certainly historical interest in the situation in Florence, and most importantly in what kinds of behavior Dante puts in Hell. It's just hard to sit through a consistent diet of gleeful self-righteousness--some of which I would say is actually wrong. So to my mind you just have to say this is a course in history, not literature.
Date published: 2021-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Inspirational! I have been deeply affected and moved by the reading of The Divine Comedy, simultaneous to watching these wonderful lectures. I was using the Musa translation they were using. Truly wonderful insights and engaging presentation by these excellent scholars and teachers. Thank you.
Date published: 2021-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoying This So Much! I'm on lecture 7 and was motivated to write my review. First, very smart to have "team teachers" on this. They work smoothly together and have very different speaking styles which means neither one has be a "showman"- just knowledgeable and a good communicator. With one coming from a historical perspective and the other from a literary, they compliment each other wonderfully. I came to this course having already read The Divine Comedy and devoured its notes, but I wanted more. Even though my copy was already greatly annotated, I am adding to my annotations with every lecture. The professors in our first few lectures have already showed me structural and parallel elements that have added to my fascination with the Dante's work. The course does not do a canto by canto analysis, but rather, after several lectures providing background information, selects cantos that provide the best models for a good understanding of the style and structure of the work so one can read it on one's own. If I was reading the work for the first time with this course, I would definitely get the translation they are using so you can more easily follow when they read lines. I am so very pleased with this course! Reading The Divine Comedy was a profound experience for me, and this course is taking me to greater depths.
Date published: 2021-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Absorbing Story Somewhat slow in the beginning, this course becomes engrossing as one descends into Hell with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Publius Vergilius Maro AKA Virgil (70-19 BC). And there are surprises, e.g., in Lecture 10 (The False Counsellors), we learn in Inferno Canto 26 that Dante’s Ulysses is not the hero one would expect, but a sinner, guilty of “simple fraud” and being tormented by fire in the 8th bolgia (ditch) of the 8th circle of Hell (the Malebolge). It seems that Ulysses is paying the price for leading his loyal shipmates to their doom. A case of rendering bad advice. In Lecture 11 (The Ultimate Evil) we consider the consequences of treason. In the 9th circle, we find Ugolino della Gherardesca (c. 1220-1289), the Guelf Count of Donortico and one-time Podesta (city manager) of Piza, gnawing on the head of Ruggieri, the Ghibelline Archbishop Rullieri degli Ubaldini (1271-1295) while both are frozen in ice. Ugolino is being punished for betraying the Ghibelline city-state of Pisa, and Ruggieri for betraying Ugolino. This could be a lesson for our own time. Consider the treason of U.S. Presidents Harry S. Truman for yielding to a powerful domestic faction aimed at colonizing the Levant (1948), of Lyndon B. Johnson for leading the nation into the Vietnam War with a U.S. contrived provocation ⸺the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964), and of George W. Bush for launching the ill-conceived War on Terror (2001) to serve the security interests of a foreign power. Five centuries pass since Dante’s Devine Comedy, and nothing ever changes. Lecture 13 (Purgatory’s Waiting Room) leads us to Purgatorio Canto 6 and Dante’s complaint about the streif of factions throughout Italy. This brings to mind the extreme divisiveness that identity politics and cancel culture have brought to the post-WWII American scene. Cf. Foreign Affairs, September/October 2018: “Against Identity Politics⸺ The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy” by Francis Fukuyama. It is when we come to the penultimate Lecture 23 (Faith, Hope, Love and the Mystic Empyrean) that our modern world breaks away from Dante’s times. We can no longer have faith in our religion of democracy or have any hope of reversing the planet’s misfortunes of human overpopulation, species extinction, environmental degradation and endless conflict. The theological virtues of Dante’s future ⸺faith, hope and charity/love⸺ are only abstractions in our inaccessible past. My wife and I, hiding out from the COVID-19 pandemic, watched the last lecture on the first day of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial ⸺another divisive brawl of factions, and ended the day watching Inferno (2016) loosely based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Dan Brown. A good book, terrible film. I thank Professors Cook and Herzman for putting together this course. We will never read this very old and surprisingly current poem, but it is good to have their vision of a forever receding world that this lecture series provides. HWF & ISF, Mesa, AZ.
Date published: 2021-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Helps explain what you knew you didn’t know I approach the GreatCourses as a recent retiree from a hard-core engineering background. It should be no surprise that my background in the humanities was minimal. But I now have time to go back experience the joy of learning topics like the divine comedy. I have walked by Dante’s home in Florence and always wondered what the big deal was. This course was a wonderful introduction to the divine comedy at a level that was not easy to keep up with but not so out of reach as to be frustrating. The professors provided a great deal of background and commentary which was absolutely essential. Their interest in the subject was also infectious. I now know what the divine comedy is, and just how much more there is to it than I am ever likely to know. But it is still inspiring for the universal truths it contains and the invitation to self reflection it offers.
Date published: 2021-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Wonderful Course This course was exactly what I was looking for. I could tell that the professors knew their material and had passion for the subject material. It did not feel as though they were reading from a script. The lectures gave just the right amount of detail. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2021-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful exposition of The Divine Comedy! I'm teaching selections from The Divine Comedy for 5 weeks in an undergraduate course on world literature, and I don't specialize in Western literature. This was an excellent introduction to Dante and helped me and my undergraduate students appreciate the richness of The Divine Comedy! I had tried reading the text on my own previously, and I completely failed to see the depth of the Dante's ideas. Drs. Cook and Herzman made Dante come alive. I've recommended that my fiance watch these videos as well. She and her friend (who is devout Christian) tried reading the Inferno by themselves, but they found it boring. And I think that's because they are not familiar with Catholicism and the Medieval Church. I know that they'll find The Divine Comedy equally amazing after they go through these delightful lectures. I know that my students are now in awe of The Divine Comedy! Thanks to the Teaching Company and to Drs. Cook and Herzman for this wonderful course. I plan to start reading Dante again, now that I've finished teaching the text.
Date published: 2020-10-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good, not Excellent I grew up in Italy. I attended a classical academy. It took us 3 years to cover The Divine Comedy. Many more lectures should have been dedicated to this subject. This course is great for those who know nothing about the Divine Comedy and want a superficial knowledge. But not adequate as a college course. What was covered was done well, but so much missing. There was not enough actual reading from the poem which would have been great. Not sure why it was not done. Also I do not like the back and forth format of the lectures. Detracts form the lectures. This is not a conversation about Dante, it's a lecture. In the end, I have always poorly understood and hated Paradise, these lectures did not help.
Date published: 2020-10-01
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Reading the Poem - Issues and Editions
1: Reading the Poem - Issues and Editions

This lecture introduces the entire course by outlining the nature of Dante's achievement in the "La Divina Commedia," discussing the available translations, and providing an overview of Dante's life.

32 min
A Poet and His City - Dante's Florence
2: A Poet and His City - Dante's Florence

Dante puts heavy demands on modern readers; he himself was deeply involved in political issues that need to be retrieved from the past. This lecture will emphasize those political events in Dante's time that have the most direct impact on the poem.

30 min
Literary Antecedents, I
3: Literary Antecedents, I

Dante goes to many literary sources - but above all to the Bible and Virgil's "Aeneid" - to tap their energy and bring them into dialogue with his own concerns, thus universalizing his poem without giving up its particularity.

30 min
Literary Antecedents, II
4: Literary Antecedents, II

In addition to the Bible and "The Aeneid," Dante is in serious conversation with his own earlier poetic, political, and philosophical writings as well as with Augustine's great spiritual autobiography, the "Confessions," which provides a model of first-person narrative and much more.

30 min
“Abandon Every Hope, All You Who Enter”
5: “Abandon Every Hope, All You Who Enter”

In Canto 3, Dante passes through the famous gates of hell, on which this legend appears. In Dante's vision, hell is the place where sinners exist as if nothing stood between them and their evil desires. What is the "geography" - both physical and moral - of damnation?

30 min
The Never-Ending Storm
6: The Never-Ending Storm

The nature of incontinence - the sin of subjecting reason to desire - is the theme of Inferno 5. Here, the pilgrim has a sustained discourse with the famous Francesca da Rimini. This is the first sustained encounter that Dante has with anyone besides Virgil. What clues do we find here about the nature of hell and its denizens?

31 min
7: Heretics

Dante's "Inferno" deals with sins of wrong belief, as well as wrong action. In this lecture, we analyze Canto 10, where sinners are punished for heresy. According to Christian doctrine, heresy is the sin of wrong belief. But Dante's analysis goes much deeper than any textbook definition.

31 min
The Seventh Circle - The Violent
8: The Seventh Circle - The Violent

Next in gravity after sins of incontinence come sins of violence. How does Dante the poet understand and classify such sins? How does this ring of the Inferno teach Dante the pilgrim about the evil of violence and the temptations to commit it that he may encounter?

31 min
The Sin of Simony
9: The Sin of Simony

The third and last major category of sin in Dante's "Inferno" is fraud. Among the defrauders who are being punished are those, including popes, who have bought and sold sacred church offices, thereby abusing sacred things for material gain. Why is this passage especially important in the structure of the Inferno? What does it tell us about where the pilgrim now stands on his journey to wisdom?

31 min
The False Counselors
10: The False Counselors

Why does Dante the poet locate the ancient epic hero Ulysses in this part of hell? And how does the contemporary figure of Guido da Montefeltro reveal another side to that perversion of the intellect known as "false counsel"?

30 min
The Ultimate Evil
11: The Ultimate Evil

The ninth circle of the Inferno deals with the worst defrauders of all - those who have betrayed people to whom they owed a special trust. How does Dante the poet figure the terrible nature of terminal evil?

31 min
The Seven-Story Mountain
12: The Seven-Story Mountain

Dante developed the modern imagery of purgatory, as well as the idea of it as a place of spiritual growth that prepares souls to see God. We discuss the structure of purgatory, a mountain with seven terraced stories in which all of the seven tendencies toward sin - called the seven deadly sins - are successively purged. Why is purgatory the part of the afterlife that most resembles life on Earth?

30 min
Purgatory's Waiting Room
13: Purgatory's Waiting Room

Until we pass through the gates of Purgatorio in Canto 9, we are still in antepurgatory, where those who were slow to repent on Earth must spend time before the actual process of purification begins. In this lecture, you meet some of the most intriguing figures Dante encounters in this place of preparation.

30 min
The Sin of Pride
14: The Sin of Pride

The most serious and universal of the deadly sins is pride, and it is the first that must be purged. The souls on the terrace of the proud learn from both positive and negative examples of pride and its opposite, the virtue of humility. Classical and biblical cases are placed side by side as parts of a profound Dantean meditation on the power of art to shape the soul.

31 min
The Vision to Freedom
15: The Vision to Freedom

At the exact structural center of the "Commedia" are three cantos that deal with one of its most important issues, the nature of free will, and hence of love. Listen in and learn from a three-way discussion among Dante, Marco Lombardo, and Virgil.

30 min
Homage to Virgil
16: Homage to Virgil

Near the top of the seven-story mountain, Dante and Virgil meet the Roman poet Statius. Although he too has been guided in a sense by Virgil, Statius does not at first realize to whom he is speaking. What makes this episode, which comes just before Virgil must leave the poem, such a poignant comment on poets and the meaning of what they do?

30 min
Dante's New Guide
17: Dante's New Guide

The last five cantos of the Purgatorio bring together the personal and the political, the particular and the universal, and the personal and the theological, in a way that reveals much about the nature of the entire "Commedia." Purgatory ends with the pilgrim, now guided by Beatrice, cleansed and ready to ascend to the stars.

31 min
Ascending the Spheres
18: Ascending the Spheres

How are Dante's encounters with the souls of the saved in heaven different from his previous encounters in hell and purgatory? What clues about the meaning of the entire poem may we draw from the light imagery, which now becomes so prominent?

30 min
An Emperor Speaks
19: An Emperor Speaks

Paradiso 6 is the only canto that has but one speaker, the Roman emperor Justinian. His fascinating discourse on law and the virtues of the true ruler continues the discussion of politics begun in Inferno 6 and extended in Purgatorio 6.

31 min
The Circle of the Sun - Saints and Sages
20: The Circle of the Sun - Saints and Sages

In a canto that celebrates the virtue of wisdom, Dante meets great figures in the Christian intellectual and theological tradition. Yet his deepest lesson may come from reflecting on the life of the decidedly unlearned St. Francis of Assisi. Wisdom includes intellectualism and scholarship, but hardly stops there.

30 min
A Mission Revealed - Encounter with an Ancestor
21: A Mission Revealed - Encounter with an Ancestor

The sphere of Mars is the heavenly seat of the courageous. Not least among these is Dante's own ancestor, the Crusader Cacciaguida, whom the pilgrim meets and talks with. How is this soldier and martyr a model for his poetic descendant?

30 min
Can a Pagan Be Saved?
22: Can a Pagan Be Saved?

Cantos 19 and 20 of Paradiso sing of the circle of good rulers in Jupiter, where the defining virtue is justice. Here Dante revisits the question of the salvation of non-Christians (first introduced in the uppermost ring of Inferno), and entertains some intriguing possibilities for salvation.

30 min
Faith, Hope, Love, and the Mystic Empyrean
23: Faith, Hope, Love, and the Mystic Empyrean

What are the final lessons that Beatrice must teach the pilgrim before his culminating vision of God can be granted? Why is the saintly mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, who takes over here, such an appropriate third and final companion for this journey?

31 min
"In My End Is My Beginning"
24: "In My End Is My Beginning"

As the poem opened, divine love was turning Dante's fear and confusion into a pilgrimage - a journey with a goal. Even as Dante suggests (he cannot directly describe) his vision of "the love that moves the stars," he is preparing us for a return to the world of space and time. As part of this "return," we reflect briefly on why Dante is someone with whom we should all spend time.

31 min
William R. Cook

In some ways, being detached from the world allows you also to be united with the world.


Cornell University


State University of New York, Geneseo

About William R. Cook

Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.

Also By This Professor

Ronald B. Herzman

I am astonished and deeply grateful for all the feedback from people for whom the Dante course has made a difference in their lives.


University of Delaware


State University of New York, Geneseo

About Ronald B. Herzman

Dr. Ronald B. Herzman is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1969. He graduated with honors from Manhattan College and earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Delaware. Dr. Herzman's teaching interests include Dante, Chaucer, Francis of Assisi, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Arthurian literature. He has written many articles and book chapters and is the coauthor of The Apocalyptic Imagination in Medieval Literature and coeditor of Four Romances of England. Professor Herzman received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1976, and in 1991, Manhattan College awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Professor Herzman and Professor William R. Cook have been collaborating intensively since 1973, when they team-taught a course at SUNY-Geneseo called The Age of Chaucer. Subsequent courses included The Age of Dante and The Age of Francis of Assisi. Both prolific writers in their own right, together they have published The Medieval World View with the Oxford University Press, currently in its second edition. In 2003, Professors Cook and Herzman were presented with the Medieval Academy of America's first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies.

Also By This Professor