Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the poem, and support their choices with details from the text. Dante’s Inferno is an especially rich text to examine because of its meticulously constructed allegory and its (frequently graphic) visual writing.
Dante’s own world has been turned upside down with his exile from Florence. He would write letters to the papacy and other political leaders in Florence, trying to regain a political foothold and make his way back to the city. During this time, he harbored a lot of ill-will towards his political foes, and wrote many into the tortuous scenes in Inferno.
As he found his efforts rebuffed, he began to doubt how this all fit in with a grander plan set forth before him by God. In questioning his faith, he found himself in a spiritual turmoil that also reflected his personal turmoil. This led him to try to make sense of everything through a spiritual journey, where he hopes to come to a better understanding of his situation by the end of it. This is also reflected in his frustration with Farinata, who refuses to tell him where some of their mutual acquaintances are, and Virgil advises Dante that Beatrice (Divine Love) will answer all of his questions soon enough.
As Dante comes to this crossroads in his life, he realizes that faith alone isn’t enough anymore. He calls on Virgil, who represents Human Reason, to help guide him through the turmoil he’s facing so that he can come to a better place where Divine Love, or Faith, can take over and guide him once again. Virgil provides the element of Reason for Dante so that he can make sense of why things have happened, and where people’s sins will take them. Once he’s reached the level of Earthly Paradise, Divine Love, in the form of Beatrice, will lead Dante into Heaven. At this point, Virgil must disappear, because Human Reason cannot either understand or coexist with heavenly, spiritual faith.
Dante organizes the levels of Hell in order of what he believes are the least evil to the worst evil sins. In accordance with each sin, the souls are subjected to different levels of punishment. All are in despair and wailing for relief, but he reserves the more painful punishments (like fire) for the worst offenders.
In Dante’s mind, the worst offenders of all are those who were treacherous to their masters, like Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. This is also the level where the reader will find Lucifer, or Satan, who betrayed God by mounting a rebellion against Him. Dante feels that justice is served when it is doled out in accordance with the severity of the sin, and when it reflects the nature of the sin in some way. This contrapasso, or poetic justice, is a central theme of Dante’s allegorical Hell.
The Three Beasts represent the Worldliness that Dante tries to escape from. His spiritual path of righteousness is blocked by these hideous beings, and he needs Human Reason (Virgil) to save him and help him turn this path of turmoil into spiritual reconcile with God. Dante’s exile are his darkest days, and he is having difficulty finding the meaning of his exile to God’s greater plan.
The Gates of Hell are inscribed with the words:
I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way to a forsaken people,
I am the way into eternal sorrow,
Sacred justice moved my architect,
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
primordial love, and ultimate intellect.
Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me,
and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Replacing the “I” in the first stanza with the word “sin” highlights a deeper meaning. Sin leads to woe, to being forsaken, to eternal sorrow. Hell has existed before man, and will exist forever because the punishment of sin can never end. Therefore, all souls who enter (except for those on a heavenly errand, like Dante) should abandon any hope of return; Hell is eternal. Their chance to be “good” people ended with their deaths.
Virgil was revered by the people of Dante’s time, but, as was often the case with classical poets and writers, the people of the Middle Ages had to reconcile Virgil’s great work with his lack of Christian faith. One way to get around that was to look for hidden meanings in their writings.
For instance, Virgil once wrote of a savior who would come to save the Roman people. Many in Dante’s time took this to mean that Virgil was prophesying the coming of Christ, so they viewed him as a godly man who just missed the true understanding that came with Christianity, rather than an evil, godless, pagan.
As a fellow poet, Dante personally admired Virgil’s work, and saw him as a voice of reason in a godless world that had not yet seen the blessing of Christianity. Therefore, he calls upon Virgil to be his guide through the many sights he will see and experience. Virgil’s explanations will reflect Human Reason, and will escort Dante until Divine Love can take over. Dante is saying that Human Reason can only get a person so far on their spiritual journey, and Faith will have to take the person the rest of the way.
Grade Level 9-12
Difficulty Level 3 (Developing to Mastery)
Type of Assignment Individual or Partner
Type of Activity: Themes, Symbols & Motifs
(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Use This Assignment With My Students", update the instructions on the Edit Tab of the assignment.)
Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Inferno. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.
(You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)
Identification of Theme(s), Symbol(s), and/or Motif(s)
All themes are correctly identified as important recurring topics or messages in the story. Symbols are correctly identified as objects that represent something else at a higher level in the story. Motifs are correctly identified as important recurring features or ideas in the story.
Most themes are correctly identified, but others are missing or incomplete. Most symbols are correctly identified, but some objects are missing or incomplete. Some motifs are correctly identified, but others are missing or incomplete.
Most themes are missing, incomplete, or incorrect. Most symbols are missing, incomplete, or incorrect. Most motifs are missing, incomplete, or incorrect.
No themes, symbols, or motifs are correctly identified.
Examples and Descriptions
Quotes and examples are accurate to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) that are being identified. Descriptions accurately explain the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) and highlight their significance to the story.
Most quotes and examples are accurate to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motifs that are being identified. Descriptions mostly accurately explain the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s), and highlight their significance to the story.
Most quotes and examples are minimal, incorrect, or unrelated to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) that are being identified. Descriptions contain inaccuracies in their explanations, or do not highlight their significance to the story.
Examples and descriptions are missing or too minimal to score.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are accurate to the story and reflect time, effort, thought, and care with regard to placement and creation of the scenes.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are mostly accurate to the story. They reflect time and effort put into placement and creation of the scenes.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are inaccurate to the story. The depictions may be rushed or show minimal effort, time, and care put into placement and creation of the scenes.
Most depictions are missing too many elements or are too minimal to score. Little time or effort has been put into placement and creation of the scenes.
There are no errors in spelling, grammar, or mechanics throughout the storyboard. All writing portions reflect careful proofreading and accuracy to the story.
There are a few errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics throughout the storyboard. All writing portions show accuracy to the story and some proofreading.
There are several errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics throughout the storyboard. Most writing portions do not reflect proofreading or accuracy to the story.
Errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics in writing portions of the storyboard seriously interfere with communication.
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