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Heather Webb explores personae in Dante’s Commedia

What does it mean to be a person when the body is taken away? Dante invites readers to reflect along with him

Harvardianaby Sarah Axelrod

Dante navigates the afterlife by speaking with the persons that populate it, his interactions gradually shaping his concept of humanity and personhood. Souls in Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise appear not as physical embodiments of the persons they were in life, but as the essence of those persons expressed in speech, gesture and interaction. Heather Webb argues that personhood is something that exists beyond the physical body and remains after death and damnation. Her book Dante’s Persons (Oxford University Press, 2016) takes stock of all three canticles of theCommedia, searching for the growing and evolving meaning of that word, persona. She connects her own close readings of the Commedia’s text with centuries of commentary that take different views of what personhood actually is, a kind of study that gives voice to a great many fascinating and often conflicting critical viewpoints. The result, as Webb discusses with Sarah Axelrod, College Fellow in Italian Studies at Harvard University, is an elegant, approachable book that considers one of the most famous works in world literature and extracts perspectives on what makes us human, inviting new readers of Dante to confront ethical questions of our own time with his exquisite poetry.

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