WHO IS DANTE’S QUEEN BEE?
Updated: Aug 27
We tend to think of The Divine Comedy as a buddy novel; Dante and Virgil bonding as they battle through the afterlife hurtling towards their destination of Paradise. There’s a plethora of male cameos weaving and diving into the story - think God, Satan, Adam, Solomon, Hercules, Judas and Ulysses. In fact, there are hordes of men everywhere you look; the Knights Templar, the Apostles, prelates of the Church, centaurs, demons, giants. But let’s stop to consider The Divine Comedy as a tribute to women. Formidable ones at that.
Up front and centre, naturally, is Queen B - Beatrice. For starters, that he’s on this monumental quest is all down to her in the first place, having firmly deposited him in The Dark Wood those early hours of Good Friday. She features predominantly as Dante’s love interest but her light really shines in Part III - Paradise. She acts as his escort through the celestial spheres, arguably the most important section of his week-long journey, a role denied to virtuous Virgil due to the unfortunate timing of his birth leaving him Faithless. She’s wise, merciful, critical but just, although, be clear; there’s no hall pass on her watch. Beatrice is a classic multi-tasker. She executes a handful of roles with expert precision – tour guide, counsellor, girlfriend, champion, problem solver and devil’s advocate (no pun intended). But, most of all, she’s an educator.
It’s Beatrice who teaches Dante that rejection of sin is not enough to guarantee man ascension to the heavenly spheres upon his Judgement Day. Yes, she explains; if man renounces sin he will avoid eternal death in the blazing and torturous inferno, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it? Man must reject sin. Man must atone for his sins. Man must restore his faith in God. That, my friends, is the crux of this epic tale and it’s Beatrice who spells it out in no uncertain terms. Stop sinning and start praying. As celestial Professor of Calculus, her winning formula would read Virtue + Redemption = Salvation.
One could argue that without Beatrice, Dante would undergo little or no personal, emotional or spiritual development because it’s she who facilitates his introspection, posing questions or theories on which he must ruminate in order to move forward. Let’s face it, how is anyone to grow, spiritually or otherwise, without a period of reflection and self-analysis? It’s also Beatrice who tasks Dante with saving humanity from spiritual destruction. All this, she says, waving her arms at what he understands to mean the afterlife in its entirety; take what you’ve witnessed and save mankind from himself. Go, teach, write something. Warn them. And, despite the enormity of the task, he’s willing to do it because her promise of eternal life together in the bliss and glory of Paradise is mightily appealing and well worth the effort. Because he loves her. Ah, Queen B – long may you reign.
So, which other strong females make an appearance in this literary classic? Well, there’s Medusa and her motley crew, The Furies, fiercely defending the entrance to Dis, denying Dante progression through the inferno. Even the winning ways of the mild mannered, steadfast and convivial Virgil can’t persuade them to unlock the gates and no one’s going to argue with these ferocious ladies on their home turf. And then there’s The Harpies, avidly guarding the Forest of Suicides, violently and gleefully pecking away at the fragile saplings that are embedded into the woodland floor, human souls taking on arboreal form once they are hurled into the seventh circle. A weak twiglet bending in the wind is no match for these vicious harridans, believe me.
And there’s Rahab of course; castigated and denounced as a prostitute in the Bible. But, hold up! Did you know she also risked her life to aide Joshua’s spies and, in doing so, helped the Israelites secure the Promised Land, thus achieving God’s will? No. They kept that quiet, eh? You may be surprised to learn which realm of the afterlife she resides in.
And then there’s Matilda. Sweet, calm, serene, sublime, hypnotic Matilda. Follow me, she says to Dante with an outstretched hand, and I’ll baptise you in the most glorious of rivers where all memory of your earthly sins will be forgotten and you’ll be spiritually prepped to ascend to Heaven. She’s not cast as a temptress, rather a facilitator. No stranger danger here. He’s happy to comply, naturally.
And, now, to the top dog. Klaxon alert. Drumroll please. Here she comes… Empress of Sass. Queen of Queens. Queen of Heaven, in fact. Mother of God. Spiritual mother to all humankind. Yes, folks, it’s the one, the only, Our Blessed Mother; the Virgin Mary. Step up and take a bow.
We are told in the opening that Mary is one of three women watching over Dante from Heaven as he begins his arduous battle through the inferno. She’s there right at the start, also at the end long after Beatrice has spoken her last word. It is during the magnificent ceremony of the thrones in the heart of the celestial rose that her most devoted fan, St Bernard, offers the Queen of Heaven a prayer of intercession, imploring her to intercede on Dante’s behalf and talk to God. As if we were in any doubt of her status, Dante is telling us right here that she has God’s ear. Will she? Can she? Does she?
Bar his encounter with Satan, women feature in Dante’s most momentous and critical experiences. They are key players, facilitating his development as a man, an emotional and spiritual being; a human being. They motivate him personally, spiritually and, believe it or not, professionally but, unlike the male characters who are merely tools of the author to move the story forward (Dante travels through the afterlife and along the way meets men a, b and c before moving on to the next realm where he meets more men, x, y and z) – it’s the women he meets who instigate and facilitate his pivotal moments. Let’s look at that in more detail:
Beatrice casts him into The Dark Wood so that he can change his sinning ways on Earth. If he atones and redeems himself, she teases, he can spend eternal life with her in the glory and bliss that is Heaven. She sets him the task of reminding mankind to renounce sin so all of humanity, too, can ascend to enjoy eternal life in Paradise. It’s the kind, gentle, Matilda who baptises him in the River Lethe and prepares him for his spiritual awakening. It’s his fear of The Furies and The Harpies that Dante must overcome to progress through the inferno and complete his quest. It’s merciful Mary, Queen of Heaven, who is asked to intercede and converse with God on Dante’s behalf.
So yes, The Divine Comedy is a sure fire hit in the field of ‘buddy’ genre. But let’s not forget those powerful, sassy, bold, determined females whom Dante plays tribute to throughout the poem. He knows they’re enabling him, driving him to push himself to develop into a better, more rounded and mature individual. He understands they’re facilitators; equipping him to progress through the afterlife to better draw upon his experiences to report back to earthly man the message God is so desperate to share. That Heaven rocks. Then again, so do these sassy ladies.
Queen B - Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella