I'm lucky enough to be part of a reading group that's planned to read each volume of Dante's Divine Comedy over the summer months. Having just finished the Inferno, I can say that, daunting as it may be, I'm really enjoying the reading process.
Some key questions that have arisen for me while reading are these: How are the characters with whom Dante converses narrating themselves (i.e. are they trustworthy, are they contemptuous, etc.)? Furthermore, what is the relationship between Reason (Virgil not only represents the poetic tradition, but also stands in as an allegorical representation of Reason, which in itself is not sufficient for salvation) and Emotion (namely, pity or sympathy, which we as readers continuously encounter in Dante's reactions to the inhabitants of hell)?
What's important to remember as we explore this tension is that, although humanist interpretations have prized Dante's sympathetic response to the stories of those he meets, Virgil continuously reminds Dante that his pity is essentially a symptom of pride (at least, while in hell): "Who is more impious than one who thinks that God shows passion in His judgement?" (XX.29-30). Piety and pity both come from the same Italian root: "pieta." This makes things a bit tricky at times, but in this case it's quite clear that Virgil recognizes that such pity challenges God's authority. Another important point of clarification: if God were to show "passion in His judgment" it would mean that his judgment could be second-guessed - that it was subject to a whim. We also need to remember that "Virgil is not the Roman poet so much as he is human reason unenlightened by faith; when he acts or speaks in the poem he does so without the historical context supplied by his life and works" (Robert Hollander's "Introduction," xxix). In other words, as a pagan poet, Virgil can only take Dante so far. Reason names the limit of Virgil's sensitivity. He is interested in justice and has little to say about compassion or forgiveness (though, he does admit to feeling pity himself when he observes the friends of his that are stuck in Limbo).
Unsurprisingly, I've found John Milton's Paradise Lost an interesting point of comparison. Unlike his heroic representation in Paradise Lost (and unlike most of the characters we meet in Hell), Dante's Satan isn't given any dialogue, for it appears he's too preoccupied chewing on traitors. Also surprising is that Dante's Satan isn't associated with fire but with ice: "The emperor of the woeful kingdom / rose from the ice below his breast" (XXXIV.28-9); the three winds produced by the flapping of his wings are "the sources of ice upon Cocytus" (XXXIV.52). To finally escape Hell, Virgil and Dante must climb "down the thick pelt and crusted ice" of Satan's "hairy flanks" (XXXIV.73-75).
I've also found Menomena's new album, upon which I've been expounding in my last couple posts, the perfect music for navigating hell (in particular, the track "Killemall," which inspired my choice of image for post below).