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I can see little reason for Dante to name his work a 'divine comedy.' At least with Inferno, I can better see it as a tragedy. Why did he choose to name his work as he did?

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The question can be broken down into two subquestions: one about the term "comedy" and one about the adjective "divine". Dante never referred to his own work as the "Divine Comedy", so where does the title come from?

The term comedy: the term comedia can be found in a letter that Dante wrote in Latin to Cangrande della Scala. We also find the term in Canto XVI of Inferno:

di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro,

In other contexts, Dante does not refer to his work as a "comedy"; instead he uses the term "poema sacro", for example in the first verse of Canto XXV of Paradiso:

Se mai continga che ’l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra

In addition, what Dante and his contemporaries understood by "comedy" diverges from what we mean by that term. Even though they were aware of Aristotle's subdivision of drama in tragedy, comedy and satyr play, this does not seem to have been very useful to them. Based on etymology, they thought of comedy as a story with a bad beginning and a happy end. This clearly applies to Dante's main work, which begins with a descent into hell and ends in paradise. A "comedy" was not required to make an audience laugh.

The term "comedy" can also be seen as contrasting with "tragedy" in a different way. In medieval poetics, tragedy was considered a "higher" genre than comedy. Dante himself had referred to Virgil's Aeneid as an "alta tragedia" (literally, "high tragedy") and referring to his own work as "comedy" is thus an act of modesty. Virgil's Aeneid had told a story that would later enable the founding of Rome, whereas Dante's "comedy" tells the story of an erring Christian trying to find the right path, which is much less heroic than what Aeneas went through.

The term divine does not come from Dante at all. The first person to use that term was Boccaccio in his Vita di Dante ("Life of Dante") or Trattatello in laude di Dante ("Short Treatise in Praise of Dante").

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  • This meaning of "comedy" is also used often in reference to Shakespeare's works.
    – Barmar
    Jul 4 at 14:12
  • @Barmar Elizabethans could label a specific play as "tragedy" in one edition and as something else in another edition. Drama was not a highly regarded genre anyway.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 4 at 14:15
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    I think the point is that the plays are typically divided into comedies and tragedies. As you state, comedies are just the ones that aren't tragedies, i.e. they have happy endings.
    – Barmar
    Jul 4 at 14:18
  • @Barmar Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida was described as a "historie" in the quarto editions but as a "tragedie" in the first and second folios. The genres were not as clearly separated as most modern readers would imagine.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 4 at 14:41
  • @Barmar "As you state, comedies are just the ones that aren't tragedies, i.e. they have happy endings." I don't say that it all.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 4 at 22:15
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In the introduction by Bianca Garavelli to the Inferno there is a section titled "Il valore del titolo", that is, "The value of the title", in which this is explained in detail:

Commedia e non Divina Commedia è il titolo che Dante pose al suo poema: questo almeno è un fatto, dato che l'autore stesso, in almeno tre occasioni, lo definisce così. Le prime due occasioni sono due passi del poema: al v. 128 del canto XVI dell'Inferno il poema è detto «questa comedìa»; al v. 2 del canto XXI sempre dell'Inferno è invece «la mia comedìa»; la terza occasione è la dedica del Paradiso, già citata, a Cangrande della Scala. Qui Dante afferma espressamente che il titolo del libro è «Incomincia la Commedia di Dante Alighieri, fiorentino per nascita, non per stile di vita». Viene da chiedersi la ragione di questa scelta, che può suscitare qualche perplessità. Bisogna fare, allo scopo, un piccolo passo indietro, e rileggere la sistemazione dei generi letterari del suo tempo che Dante stesso, vero esperto di letteratura, offre ai lettori del De Vulgari Eloquentia, il trattato latino sulla validità dell'uso della lingua volgare, l'antenata dell'italiano, anche in opere di contenuto elevato. In base a questa classificazione, lo stile "comico" è quello che in termini moderni chiameremmo "medio", a metà strada fra un registro stilistico basso, che Dante definisce "elegiaco" e uno elevato, per Dante "tragico". Se consideriamo i dislivelli anche notevoli di stile che il poema mostra, dagli insulti fra diavoli e dannati dell'Inferno alle astratte discussioni teologiche del Paradiso, possiamo concordare che il risultato è proprio uno stile "medio". Oltre a questa spiegazione indiretta, Dante ce ne offre un'altra molto più specifica nell'Epistola a Cangrande: qui dichiara espressamente che ha scelto il titolo di «Commedia» per l'andamento delle vicende. Contrariamente alla tragedia, che comincia bene e finisce male, la commedia, e quindi anche il suo poema, si apre con avvenimenti difficili, ma si conclude serenamente. Meglio di così, addirittura in Paradiso...

In effetti, all'epoca di Dante questa definizione doveva essere familiare e facilmente accettabile: i manoscritti più antichi riportano tutti il titolo dantesco. Il primo ad attribuire al poema l'aggettivo «divina» fu Boccaccio, sempre nel suo scritto d'encomio Trattatello in laude di Dante. Non fu lui, comunque a unire l'aggettivo al titolo vero e proprio, al sostantivo «Commedia». Boccaccio intendeva riferirsi al contenuto del poema, cioè al fatto che Dante racconta il suo viaggio nell'aldilà, la sua iniziazione ai misteri dei regni oltre la morte. Ma in seguito, fu soprattutto l'idea che il poema dantesco era un eccezionale capolavoro a spingere commentatori e editori a definirlo "divino". La prima edizione a stampa col titolo ampliato, Divina Commedia, è del 1555: a Venezia, presso lo stampatore Gabriele Giolito. Da allora in poi, quello fu il titolo che, soprattutto per i meriti straordinari, il capolavoro di Dante portò su di sé.

I will try to translate it:

Comedy and not Divine Comedy is the title that Dante placed on his poem: this at least is a fact, since the author himself, in at least three occasions, defines it that way. The first two occasions are two passages of the poem: in verse 128 of canto XVI of the Inferno the poem is called "questa comedìa"; in verse 2 of canto XXI of the Inferno it is instead "my comedìa"; the third occurrence is the dedication of the Paradiso, already mentioned, to Cangrande della Scala. Here Dante expressly states that the title of the book is "Here begins the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth, not by lifestyle". One wonders the reason for this choice, which may arouse some perplexity. In order to explain this, one must take a small step back, and reread the arrangement of genres of his time that Dante himself, a true expert in literature, offers to the readers of De Vulgari Eloquentia, the Latin treatise on the validity of the use of the vernacular, the ancestor of Italian, even in works of high content. Based on this classification, the "comic" style is what in modern terms we would call it "medium", halfway between a low stylistic register, which Dante defines as "elegiac", and a high one, for Dante "tragic". If we consider the even considerable differences in height in style that the poem shows, from the insults between devils and damned of the Inferno to the abstract theological discussions of the Paradiso, we can agree that the result is just an "medium" style. In addition to this indirect explanation, Dante offers us another much more specific one in the Epistola a Cangrande: here he expressly declares that he chose the title of "Comedy" for the course of events. Contrary to the tragedy, which begins well and ends badly, the comedy, and therefore his poem too, opens with difficult events, but it ends peacefully. Better than so, even in Heaven...

Indeed, in Dante's time this definition must have been familiar and easily acceptable: the most ancient manuscripts all bear the Dante title. The first to attribute to the poem the adjective "divine" was Boccaccio, again in his commendation work Trattatello in laude di Dante. It was not he, however, who joined such adjective to the noun "Comedy" in the title. Boccaccio intended to refer to the contents of the poem, that is, to the fact that Dante tells of his journey into the afterlife, his initiation into the mysteries of the kingdoms beyond death. But in later, it was above all the idea that Dante's poem was an exceptional masterpiece that prompted commentators and editors to define it as "divine". The first printed edition with the expanded title, Divina Commedia, is from 1555: in Venice, at the printer Gabriele Giolito. From then on, that was the title that, especially for its extraordinary merits, Dante's masterpiece brought.

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