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Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Divine Comedy

Taught By Multiple Professors

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Dante's Divine Comedy

Course No. 287
Taught By Multiple Professors
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4.8 out of 5
74 Reviews
83% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 287
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Course Overview

Two gifted teachers share the fruit of two lifetimes' worth of historical and literary expertise in this introduction to one of the greatest works ever written. One of the most profound and satisfying of all poems, the Divine Comedy (or Commedia) of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is a book for life.

In a brilliantly constructed narrative of his imaginary guided pilgrimage through the three realms of the Christian afterlife—hell, purgatory, and heaven—Dante accomplished a literary task of astonishing complexity.

  • He created an unforgettable gallery of characters.
  • He poetically explored a host of concerns both universal and particular, timely and timeless.
  • He tapped the combined riches of the biblical and classical traditions in a synthesis that forever placed Western writers in his debt as they tried to build on his foundation.

James Joyce might have been speaking for those writers when he exclaimed, "Dante is my spiritual food!"

Geographer of the Cosmos, Student of the Soul

The full achievement of the Commedia, however, goes far beyond anything merely "literary."

Dante is a geographer of the cosmos and a student of the soul. His range spans not only the heights of heaven and the depths of hell but also the recesses of the human heart.

As Dante the pilgrim makes his journey, Dante the poet dramatizes and asks us to reflect on fundamental questions:

  • What is the quality of our moral actions?
  • How does spiritual transformation come about?
  • What is the nature of good and evil, virtue and vice, sin and sanctity?
  • Why is the world so full of strife?
  • How do we go on when we lose things we love, as Dante—through exile—lost his native Florence?
  • What role do reading and writing play in human life?

In the seven centuries since the Commedia was written, not one of these questions has lost its force.

Moreover, Dante addresses them in a demanding and innovative Italian verse form called terza rima. His complex arrangement of materials makes the Commedia one of the great virtuoso pieces of world literature.

Poet as Pilgrim, Pilgrim as Poet

Set at Eastertide in the year 1300, the poem begins with Dante, in the middle of his life, feeling trapped in a "dark wood" of error.

Lost and failing, he is rescued by the great Roman poet Virgil and can find his way again only by means of an extraordinary voyage.

He must pass down through the nine rings of hell, up the seven levels of purgatory to the earthly paradise, and up higher still through the nine spheres of heaven to the empyrean realm where God dwells in glory.

Along the way, Dante changes guides. Virgil gives way to Beatrice, a young woman about whom Dante wrote in his early love poetry and who becomes his guide through most of the spheres of paradise.

And Beatrice, in turn, gives way to Bernard of Clairvaux, a Christian mystic who is Dante's guide for the final cantos—the poem's major divisions—of the Paradiso.

Because Dante frames many of his concerns in terms of contemporary personalities and issues, and because so much of the poem consists of direct encounters between Dante and inhabitants of the afterlife, the lectures focus on providing essential background for and analysis of these encounters.

"We, Like All of You, Are Pilgrims Here"

Dante constructed the Commedia in three parts, and each part conveys an essential element of his message:

  • In the Inferno, the poet describes the pilgrim's encounters with an eye toward deepening our insight into the nature of evil and moral choice. You see Dante meeting sinners drawn from each of the categories of sin he describes, ending with a vision of Satan frozen at the bottom of hell.

  • In Purgatorio, the poet dramatizes the nature and purpose of moral conversion as repentant sinners arduously prepare themselves for the vision of God in heaven, strengthening their wills in virtue and against the seven deadly sins. Community and its great sustainers, art and ritual, become prominent themes as souls strive toward full redemption.

  • In Paradiso, Dante has memorable encounters with great Christian thinkers in the Circle of the Sun and with his own heroic ancestor in the Circle of Mars.

In the final cantos, Dante moves beyond the bounds of space and time and the power of language.

At last, he is granted a mystical, ineffable vision of God. The moment brings to full circle the journey that began when "the Love that moves the stars," mediated by prayer, first sent Virgil to help a troubled pilgrim who found himself lost along the way of life.

Your Guides on Dante's Journey

Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman are recipients of the Medieval Academy of America's first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies.

The skills that earned that award are clearly reflected in these lectures, which provide a rich context against which to appreciate Dante's writing.

You will learn:

  • Invaluable background information on Dante's life and times
  • Why Dante wrote the Commedia
  • How to approach the various English editions available.

As Professors Cook and Herzman guide you along the journey portrayed in the Commedia, you will learn how each part of the poem is connected to what has come before. You will see Dante "raising the stakes" as each of the questions with which he begins the poem are posed at ever deeper levels of development as the journey continues.

By the time your own journey through these lectures is completed, you will learn why Dante's pilgrimage is an exceedingly enriching experience for anyone who chooses to accompany him.

And you will understand why the Commedia is not a puzzle to be solved or a book to be read and put aside. It is a mystery whose beauty and power can be enjoyed for the rest of your life.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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"? x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x

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Your professors

William R. Cook Ronald B. Herzman

Professor 1 of 2

William R. Cook, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo

Professor 2 of 2

Ronald B. Herzman, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
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...
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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...
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Dante's Divine Comedy is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 74.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Start to the Single Greatest Work of Western Lit This series of 24 lectures by professors Cook and Herzman, who are both very fine non-specialists of Dante but otherwise erudite students of Western European history and literature, offers a great beginning for English-speaking adults to become familiar with the greatest single work of Western Literature. It is very easy to both praise and criticize their effort: to give justice to the Divine Comedy, one would need to devote no fewer than 100 lectures, yet this is simply not possible for this kind of educational product. In only 24 lectures, one can only "scratch the surface" and provide a modest beginning to appreciating Dante, his mindset, historical period, literary merits, and influence on later literature. They necessarily devote the first few lectures to gaining an elementary appreciation for the historical setting, without which one simply cannot proceed. They then discuss representative canti as a method of giving the listener the tools to continue self-study. They do not attempt to delve into the poetry itself, except on an occasional and necessarily superficial basis. This is because the Poem should really be read in the original Italian, as no English translation can possibly give it justice (as is generally the case with non-English poetry). The Divine Comedy is a very difficult masterpiece to tackle: one needs to have a good understanding of its historical, political, literary, religious and philosophical underpinnings. One needs to have read the Aeneid and have a good familiarity with the Holy Bible. Professors Cook and Herzman demonstrate enthusiasm as well as reverence for this poetic masterpiece, and are very careful to tailor their presentation to cater to the needs and limitations of an American adult audience, which is unlikely to know much if anything about the Work. I consider this lecture series to be one of the most significant produced by The Great Courses, as it addresses one of the pillars of Western Literature and moral/religious philosophy. One cannot consider oneself to be an "educated" man or woman without having read at least part of the Divine Comedy, at least in translation.
Date published: 2017-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An Acquired Taste I have read a number of reviews of this course that are very critical of Dante's work. I don't see how this is justified, since Dante's work has stood the test of time and has long been considered a great masterpiece of world literature. Please don't blame the professors and the course itself for what you perceive as defects in Dante. The stated purpose of the course is to present the Divine Comedy as one of the great works of world literature. In this, it succeeds admirably. For the record, Dante's work is not perfect. It is a product of the High Middle Ages and its Ptolemaic cosmos. The two professors are not unaware of the deficiencies of Dante's worldview, but they are apologists to some extent for Dante, which is understandable. Simultaneously with listening to this course, I was taking an adult university course on Dante (and Tolkein) in which a number of people there also expressed exasperation with Dante, and withdrew from the course because they simply could not relate to his work. The fact is, Dante, like broccoli, is an acquired taste. The two professors, Cook and Herzman, spoonfeed Dante very gently to their students, mindful that the taste may not be greatly to their liking, but promising that it's good for them, and that in time they will come to appreciate it more. Much the same can be said for reading Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, and a host of other grey eminences from past ages. Both professors have done their absolute best in crafting this course to make it interesting. But it is not for everyone; it is for those who want to make the effort to try and understand Dante the man. Both professors complement one another splendidly. Cook is excellent as usual. Herzman is more laid back, sometimes falling victim to "ermm's", like he's not really sure what he's going to say next. But overall, they are a pleasant pair, both of them deeply devoted scholars.
Date published: 2016-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Overview to the Divine Comedy I have been reading and re-reading Dante's masterpiece for the last 40 years in English and Italian, and always wanted to take a lecture series on the work. Even along the way earning my MA, I could not find any university classes that fit what I needed, until I came upon this gem by Profs. Cook and Herzman. I have listened to it probably a dozen times, as I not only get something new to appreciate from La Commedia, I get the pleasure of listening to the professors discussing my favorite work.
Date published: 2016-10-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from great letdown ! I spent half of my life studying the classics and because I was born not far from Florence I absorbed Iialian Litterature as a major component of my career as a teacher.The political situation of the time and Dante`s biography took the time that should have been spent on his poetry.Also the interpretation of the encounter with Paolo and Francesca was so short on sensitivity and so wrong on projecting Francesca like a crying baby trying to blame altry for her misfortune that I had to close the book and return the course.The fact that Dante faints moved by this story of love and tragedy is being dismiss with a" Get with the program, Dante !" They don`t have a clue.
Date published: 2016-07-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2016-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant This is second course I have taken given by this lecturing duet of Professor Cook and Herzman. The first was “Francis of Assisi”. I did not enjoy the first one so much; perhaps it has more appeal to people of faith. The current one, however, was absolutely brilliant. Dante’s divine comedy is referenced very extensively in other literary works and in late medieval and Renaissance history. Except for the many external references to this literary piece that I heard in other courses, I was never been exposed to the work per se and was eager to finally get to hear it. I found the work itself to be breathtakingly beautiful, funny, profound and sophisticated. The professors did a wonderful job in explaining many of the subtleties, and the endless external references to Classical history, Florentine history, and Dante’s own personal history not to mention its own self referencing to previous and future passages. It is perhaps primarily because of these references that one gets a feeling of fractal infinity, maybe best compared to some of Escher’s drawings. The course content was wonderful, and so were the Professors… Utterly enjoyed and finished it in one day.
Date published: 2015-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Agreed! - Great Course! Finally got around to taking this, and have to agree with everyone else - it's wonderful. The subject, of course, is one of the great masterpieces of literature in any language, and should be part of the experience of anyone with an interest in literature, culture, civilization, or humanity. The course presents a brief overview, and then selects some parts of the Commedia to explore in greater depth, giving us an historical context for the figures Dante discusses there, as well as a description of what they did to deserve the place in the afterlife which they occupy, and an analysis of why their particular punishment or reward is appropriate for them. Our professors are outstanding - deeply knowledgeable, well organized, clear and enthusiastic, and - perhaps most importantly - they care profoundly about this poem on a personal level. This latter is implicit in every lecture, and made explicit in the final one. The takeaway is to appreciate the Commedia as a guide to life, or at least to thinking about life, not just as a great poem. This is a good thing, because, ironically, the one thing this course does not accomplish is presenting the work as a poem, great or otherwise. Primarily, this results from the inherent barriers to translating any poetry, but this is especially problematic for an epic. The English translation used is clear and comprehensible; it is in no way poetry. Translations which emphasize the poetry become necessarily more obscure and frustrating. As an aside, I took a year's college course in Dante (with Robert Hollander, whose translation I highly recommend), and had studied a little Italian at that time. I can still remember the several early stanzas we were required to memorize in the original. The poem comes alive magnificently in the Italian, in a way that simply cannot be captured in translation. Nevertheless, this is still a wonderful, very worthwhile, beautifully taught course. It has my highest recommendation.
Date published: 2015-06-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Two Profs Dissect Dante in Depth This may be the most unique offering of The Great Courses. The creative structure of this 12-hour program is that of a pair of university professors in dialogue about Dante's "The Divine Comedy." The presentations are unscripted and include focused discussion of all three parts of the poem. One of the professors (William R. Cook) teaches history while the other (Ronald B. Herzman) is a specialist in literature. However, both are extremely knowledgeable about Dante's world, the content of the poem, and the myriad allusions in the text. Based on these programs alone, it would be nearly impossible to identify which is the historian and which is the professor of literature. The presentations are brisk and lively with each of the speakers playing off one another in smooth transitions. The Cook-Herzman team has had extensive experience in teaching Dante (a) at the university level, (b) in the Attica maximum security penitentiary, and (c) to a group of monks. One of the fascinating revelations was how the young university students preferred reading "Inferno"; the prison inmates preferred "Purgatorio"; and the trappist monks preferred "Paradiso." But what about Dante's original readers in the Middle Ages? One of the strengths of this series is the detail provided by the speakers about the poem in the context of the early fourteenth century. The medieval readers or listening audience would have immediately grasped Dante's overall concept of a spiritual journey. The original readers would have embraced the totality of the mystical experience, as opposed to any single portion of the poem. The video version of this course is highly recommended for the onscreen notations of the passages read aloud from the text of "The Divine Comedy." There are also helpful charts displayed on the screen, which represent the three unique geographical regions of the afterlife, as described by Dante: the cone (Inferno), the mountain (Puragorio), and the nine concentric heavenly spheres (Paradiso). One of the lessons conveyed in these programs is the far-reaching impact of Dante on readers of all ages and all faiths. That truth alone underscores why Dante's "Commedia" was almost immediately renamed "Divina Commedia" and why, seven centuries later, it still may provide important guideposts in our lives.
Date published: 2015-03-11
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