Senior Thesis Excerpt

“Soul of Rome”: Nostalgia in Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Saint Martin’s University
Dr. Stephen Mead
April 25, 2011

(notes/works cited not included)

Drama and epic writing frequently mirrors the contemporary political state of the society in which it is written. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599, a year of political uncertainty as Elizabeth was coming to the end of her reign. This uncertainty is reflected in Shakespeare’s political drama depicting the assassination of a soon-to-be dictator. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy during the political tensions of early fourteenth century Florence, and his epic poem includes political commentary as he places contemporary and historical figures throughout Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. In both these works, Dante and Shakespeare characterize the famous historical traitor, Marcus Brutus, but in distinctly different ways. Dante places Brutus in the deepest circle of Hell within Satan’s jaws, referring to him only in three lines of his entire epic; Shakespeare creates a whole play around Brutus’ character, depicting him as a tragic hero. By considering Dante and Shakespeare’s previous works as well as the sources they consulted for The Divine Comedy and Julius Caesar, and comparing them with the value of community within epic and tragedy, I will explore motivations in their portrayals of Brutus. To Dante, Brutus is an allegory for the destruction of an ideal. He places Marcus Brutus in the deepest circle of Hell along with Cassius and Judas as the antithesis of the Trinity in his structuring of Inferno as a metaphor for a “broken” Rome.1 To Shakespeare, however, Marcus Brutus is a flawed, tragic hero, and a representation of Roman virtue and bravery in a time of political uncertainty. In Julius Caesar, Brutus’ motivations are more significant than merely killing Caesar. Perhaps both Inferno and Julius Caesar reveal a nostalgia through their portrayals of the character of Marcus Brutus, Dante for a single Roman Empire, and Shakespeare for an ideal Roman Republic.2 Recognizing the nostalgia in both texts helps us understand the human tendency to idealize the past, perhaps to set impossible goals for society, yet therefore still improving civilization through the attempt.

First, a reader must recognize that Dante and Shakespeare wrote in different genres, centuries, and languages, which affect how the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination is told. The epic poem concerns how individuals build a community, how they come together to achieve a common goal (Link 90). John Silkin explains that epic literature, in general, upholds a community in its destiny and identity, and “arises more naturally (or mysteriously) out of obscure, ambiguous victories . . . or the defeats of a community than out of its unmistakable triumphs” (qtd. Link 90). The epic typically tells the story of the triumphs or downfalls of a community rather than those of the individual. In addition, Silkin explains that some epics, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, celebrate the thought of a “triumphing empire” or universalization (90). Plays, on the other hand, especially toward the end of the Elizabethan period and into the Jacobean period, started to exhibit a growing concern with limitation, with the restrictions placed on individual aspiration by the community (Ellis-Fermor 14). Shakespeare, as well as his contemporaries, celebrated stoicism, “a creed for individuals, prepared to cut themselves off from their kind, to defy the powers of the state” (Bradbrook 245). They admired individuals who put their personal feelings aside and submit themselves completely to necessity. Elizabethan dramatists explored the individual’s physical and psychological makeup (Dunn 7). Like people of most historic eras, the Elizabethans believed that men were not created equal. One might be born a “remarkable individual” with a freedom to advance and enlarge oneself (Dunn 7). William Creizenach explains that the dramatic poetry in the Shakespearean age was not philosophical in tendency: “It was not the aim of the poets to point out expressly to their audience that the general fate of mankind is reflected in individual instances” (127). Drama seems as though it is aimed at showing the lives of individuals and their relationship with their community, whereas the epic poem seems to focus more on the fate of individuals as reflected by communal instances. Because the epic poem often focuses on a community, and drama often focuses on the individual, the form of the work, therefore, can change the meaning of an event or character in the overall context.

The differing structures between an epic poem and a play influence the way one views a crowd or community, and therefore how the authors interpret the assassination of Julius Caesar. Dante the pilgrim narrates his journey, which makes the idea of a crowd manageable in The Divine Comedy because he is describing the communities in a distinct and logical way. Each soul in Inferno is placed within a specific community of people who are like them, whether it is by similar sins (Inferno), need for repentance (Purgatorio), or capacity to receive God’s love (Paradiso). Each group is kept separate from the others. In Inferno, the circles are separated and guarded by demons and creatures. For example, Cerberus guards the third circle that contains the gluttonous.3 Phlegyas acts as a demon ferryman outside the fifth circle of the wrathful.4 Because of these distinct separations of crowds alongside a detailed narration describing them, crowds are contained and safe. In a play, however, we are often presented only with words from individual characters about crowds, identifying crowds as ignorant groups that cannot be controlled. Where Dante values community and crowds as necessary in our understanding of the afterlife and the present life, to Shakespeare, a crowd is a “many headed monster” (Dunn 7). Julius Caesar makes much of the crazed mob that arises after Antony’s speech. The rioters kill Cinna the Poet, even after he exclaims that he is not Cinna the conspirator. The citizens yell, “Tear him for his bad verses” (III.iii.28) and “It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going” (30-31). The crowd is thirsty for revenge, and does not care who they kill to fulfill their whim. Their uncontrolled brutality exemplifies the irrationality of which a group is capable. To Shakespeare, a crowd of people cannot be contained, can become chaotic, and is to be feared. The souls within Dante’s crowds are human, whereas Shakespeare’s crowd is its own, inhuman beast. The differing presentation of crowds in The Divine Comedy and Julius Caesar can be attributed to their genres. In an epic, Dante can explain the nature and actions of groups through narration. In a play, Shakespeare can only present groups through speech of individual characters. Much information is missing in Julius Caesar, and the audience becomes unsure of whether crowds or communities can be trusted. The value of community and groups vary between the genres and affect the interpretation of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s play centers around the victories and failures of an individual in relation to his community, and therefore portrays Brutus as a tragic hero because he attempted to prevent the loss of his community, the republic. Dante’s epic centers around the sins and virtues of groups. Dante therefore places Brutus in the deepest circle of Inferno for his part in a group (he, Cassius, and Judas) who, in Dante’s opinion, destroyed the ultimate religious and political sovereigns.

Dante separates the human race into many sub-communities according to their degree of sin or goodness, further proving his nostalgia for unity by showing that, even when broken down, there is still community. Dante’s epic depicts the human race as a whole, as well as sub-communities of people who suffer for their earthly sins (Inferno), who are in the process of purification in their journey to reach Heaven (Purgatorio), and the souls who have reached the Empyrean (Paradiso). Dante places sub-communities within these three communities in different circles (Inferno), terraces (Purgatorio), or spheres (Paradiso); in each level, he separates souls by the type of sin, atonement, or capacity to receive God.5 Dante’s message pertains to all souls and their ascent toward the Divine, but focuses mostly toward defining the Christian community. Franz Link states that the epic “supplies the possibility of identification for a group of people” (90). The Christian community can most identify with The Divine Comedy, as the Christian life is the soul’s continuing attempt to restore its lost likeness to God. Dante’s epic mirrors his political belief that the state should also strive to restore its likeness to the Divine Kingdom. The Divine Comedy is the story of a Christian metamorphosis in the journey to the absolute—a process, a formation (Freccero 180). Dante’s layering in the importance of community represents his extreme belief of having a single, universalized empire under a sovereign ruler. By mirroring God’s kingdom on earth, Dante believes, we will be closer to unification with Him. This view of humanity overshadows Brutus’ individual motives for assassinating Caesar, the community’s chosen ruler. Therefore, Dante places Marcus Brutus in Hell along with Cassius, his fellow conspirator, and Judas, the betrayer of the ultimate Divine leader on earth, Christ.

Dante wrote Divine Comedy in a time of political anxiety, the disintegration of the imperial mindset into a republican one, which forms the basis of Dante’s nostalgia for a reunited kingdom. By 1300, the set date of The Divine Comedy, the Holy Roman Empire was not centralized, but instead fragmented into independent city-states (Bennett 264). This decentralization was contrary to Dante’s ideal of one, unified community. In what Herbert Schneider calls Dante’s political and philosophical last testament, De Monarchia, Dante states that the world should unite under one sovereign rule: “The multipilicity of states is the source of unending woes, all of which would disappear if these states were made subordinate to one ruler strong enough to keep them in order” (xi). Dante believed that in a civilization with many states, universal peace, the goal of his political idea, cannot exist. He believed conflict would disappear if individual states were to come together under one empire and sovereign leader. Not only does Dante call for a universal empire, but argues that it must also remain Roman (Schneider xiii). Dante argues that the old Roman Empire was guided directly by God: “Unlike other states, where developments took place by God’s permission, the Roman Empire grew by God’s direct operation” (Schneider xiii). Because Dante believed that the Roman Empire grew by God’s will, we come to understand why he punishes Brutus in the deepest pit of Hell for assassinating God’s chosen leader. In Dino Bigongiari’s introduction to De Monarchia, he explains that in The Divine Comedy, Dante called for Italy to “abandon its nationalistic aspirations,” and that it must “accept its position as part of a world empire” (xiv). Instead of splitting into separate city states, Dante argues that Italy, and the world, should unite under one rule, mirroring humanity under God. He states, “Human government is but a part of that single world-administration which has its unity in God,” and “Man is by nature in God’s likeness and therefore should, like God, be one” (Dante 10).6 Dante calls for human civilization to mirror the Divine Kingdom because humans are in God’s likeness. In both The Divine Comedy and De Monarchia, Dante shows nostalgia for an ideal Roman Empire of antiquity at a time when a more nationalistic mindset was popular in politics.

The classic literary construction of The Divine Comedy and Dante’s use of Virgil as a source further reveal his political ideal of a glorified Rome.  The Divine Comedy combines morals, religion, and contemporary politics, all structured after the work of the poet who Dante most admired, Virgil. Abraham Avni describes the epic genre as having three stages of development: the Latin political and ethical value of poetry, classical literary tradition “wedded to holy history,” and the creation of a “Virgilian Bible” for the “benefit of missionary work and the edification of the faithful” (56). Dante’s Divine Comedy incorporates all of three of these elements. Latin, being the language of scholarship, inspired the politics and ethics that play such a huge part in the separation of Dante’s sub-communities. The combination of classical literature and the history of religion form the basis of Dante’s story, as he uses history of the church; biblical quotations; and references to Virgil, Aristotle and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Also, much of Dante’s structuring of both his poetry and fictional worlds stem from Virgil’s work, especially The Aeneid. Dante uses these elements to inspire moral improvement, just as Dante the pilgrim uses Virgil in The Divine Comedy as his guide. Virgil himself must spend eternity in Limbo, the First Circle of Inferno, reserved for virtuous non-Christians who were famous for their contributions to civilization (Armour 551). Virgil’s Aeneid—the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travels to what is now Italy and becomes an ancestor of the Romans—was a great inspiration to Dante. In the Aeneid, Virgil ties Rome to the legend of Troy and glorifies Roman virtues. Through studying Virgil’s work, we find that Dante’s inspiration stems from Virgil’s description of the underworld and of Rome, furthering our understanding of Dante’s view on Caesar’s assassination.

Dante especially drew inspiration from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas’ father describes the structure of the underworld and the future of Rome, which Dante uses in his placement of Roman leaders in Inferno. Anchises tells Aeneas:

Turn your two eyes

This way and see this people, your own Romans.

Here is Caesar, and all the line of Iulus,

All who shall one day pass under the dome

Of the great sky. (VI.786-90)7

Anchises predicts that Julius Caesar will be a great leader. He then mentions Marcus Brutus, predicting that he will “call for the death penalty in freedom’s name,” and that the “Love of the fatherland will sway him” (821-2). Virgil describes that Brutus will die in the name of freedom for his republic after assassinating Caesar for the love of his state. Having drawn his structure of Inferno from The Aeneid, Dante takes the same approach to Brutus’ character as did Virgil: as a stoic. Dante describes Brutus in one of Satan’s mouths: “the one who hangs from that black snout is Brutus—/ see how he writhes and does not say a word” (I.xxxiv.65-66).8 Dante’s lines describing Brutus suggests that he is stoic even in damnation, as he does not jerk, like Judas, or scream or cry in pain, but instead accepts and endures the pain as he submits without complaint to the unavoidable necessity. He accepts his fate, as he believes he did what is right in preserving the Roman Republic. Though Brutus killed Caesar for the love of Rome, Dante places Brutus in the deepest circle of Inferno for committing this murder. To Dante, this punishment is justified because, regardless of intention, Brutus assassinated God’s chosen ruler of what was the world’s greatest empire.

Virgil’s Anchises predicts the future events of the Rome Empire, which Dante imitates in his construction of Inferno as a “broken” Rome. Anchises tells Aeneas:

Roman, remember by your strength to rule

Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these:

To pacify, to impose the rule of law,

To spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (VI.853-6)

Anchises states that Rome is the ultimate earthly empire. It is the duty of Rome to make the law and regulate all on Earth. Dante voices this same belief in De Monarchia. He states, “The Roman people acquired that unified rule over all mortals which is called ‘empire’ by right” and that the “Roman rule is for the common good” (27, 32). Dante even references Virgil in De Monarchia, using Book VI of The Aeneid to help prove why universalization is necessary. However, through his writings, Dante the poet reveals a nostalgia for a Roman Empire that he believes existed in the past, while the character Anchises looks forward to this ideal empire in the future in his speech. However, Anchises soon begins to cry as he explains to Aeneas that it cannot exist:

Oh, do not ask

About this huge grief of your people, son.

Fate will give earth only a glimpse of him

Not let the boy live on. Lords of the sky,

You thought the majesty of Rome too great

If it had kept these gifts. (868-70)

Anchises explains the inevitable destruction of the ideal Roman Empire, a concept that Dante the poet mourns and expresses in Inferno. So, if Dante’s Inferno owes to Virgil’s Aeneid, and the underworld of The Aeneid is based on Rome, then Inferno becomes the “broken” Rome, and its breakers, Marcus Brutus and Cassius, are in the center of torture. It is the invert of Heaven. Inferno is located in the earth, the very center of which is occupied by Satan, the farthest from Heaven. Those who murdered the divine rulers are placed in the center of this broken empire, creating a mock trinity—Satan with his three heads eternally devouring Judas, Brutus and Cassius, the destroyers of their most sovereign leaders. Dante structures this broken version of Rome after Rome itself. However, Dante models Inferno not after an empire, but a republic, a broken Rome in his opinion. Dante bookends this broken, Roman Hell with Roman leaders: Junius Lucius Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic and ancestor to Marcus Brutus, who fought to preserve it, but failed, marking the end of the republic.

Dante the pilgrim’s entrance into Inferno begins with meeting noble pagans in Limbo, including Junius Lucius Brutus, giving us an introduction to the structure of Dante’s broken, Roman Hell. Limbo is the first of nine circles where those who lived before Christianity or baptism reside. It is inhabited by classical poets (I.iv.82-105), pagan philosophers, writers, mathematicians, and doctors (130-43), and great Trojan and Roman heroes (121-8). In Limbo, “on the basis of human achievement and fame, [Dante] tones down the strict doctrine that all pagans are damned to eternal suffering whilst preserving the principle that belief in Christ is necessary for salvation” (Armour 551-552). God has rewarded them in the afterlife as they are not suffering for eternity in Hell, only yearning for more understanding.9 Because they lived honorable lives, yet may not have known Christianity, they are not punished in Hell, but still suffer by eternally yearning to see the Divine. Among others, Dante the pilgrim mentions seeing “the Brutus who drove Tarquin out” (I.iv.127). Historically, it was Junius Brutus who drove out the Tarquin dynasty from Rome because of  Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of Collatinus’ chaste wife, Lucretia (Majors 339). Both Dante and Shakespeare write of Junius Brutus, and though Dante only mentions him in one line versus Shakespeare’s poem, “The Rape of Lucrece,” it is significant in his structuring of Inferno. Dante includes Junius in the first circle of Inferno, marking the beginning of the politically structured Rome that Dante believes was a failure—the republic. Unlike Marcus Brutus, however, Junius did not assassinate the sovereign ruler for the purpose of beginning the republic, but instead because the ruler was corrupt, hence his placement with the noble Romans in Limbo.

As Dante’s Limbo holds virtuous Romans, Dante places the evil Romans, Cassius and Marcus Brutus, the assassins of Caesar and destroyers of the empire, in the last and deepest circle of Hell. Dante places the worst traitors in the ninth circle: traitors to cities and parties, to guests, and to benefactors, and worst of all—to secular and religious rulers. The ninth circle holds, in Dante’s opinion, the greatest political and religious traitors of all: Judas, the betrayer of Christ, as well as Cassius and Brutus, the betrayers of Caesar, founder of the Roman Empire. Dante views Caesar as the patron of Rome, and the world’s supreme secular ruler. Dante believes that Cassius and Brutus not only betray and murder their supreme political ruler, but the closest man to God…

Katie Hawkins


About Katie Hargrave

A post-sport athlete, Weight Loss Coach, Holistic Health Coach, and Personal Trainer trying to become the healthiest version of herself and guide others in their journey.
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