The shade-bodies of Dante’s Commedia are an interpretative crux. The poet recognizes a common problem of Patristic and medieval eschatology: how can separated souls in Purgatory and Hell suffer from corporeal fire prior to the Resurrection? Most literary visions of the afterlife ignore such difficulties, silently granting pseudo-embodiment to the departed; but Dante, employing similar aerial bodies, directly questions their nature. Yet his account has been widely misunderstood, either as a philosophically-deficient claim that such bodies could allow sensation, or as theologically-facetious legerdemain in service of poetic license.
I argue that Dante’s explanation of the shades (primarily in Purgatorio XXV) is a coherent justification of the possible union of separated souls to aerial bodies: not a formal union allowing for sensation, but a virtual one allowing for manifestation—which is precisely parallel to angelic appearances. The primary consequence of this reading is that the narrative of the Commedia, in its basic infrastructure, is meant as truly possible according to Dante’s philosophical and theological commitments—but only if the suffering souls encountered by the pilgrim are not to be understood as capable of sensing their apparent torments, but of manifesting their intellectual torment physically. In this respect the literal sense of the poem is neither a patently impossible fabula nor an historia, but an argumentum, an argument for the possibility and fittingness of embodiment in the afterlife. To claim that separated souls might truly manifest themselves through a body is not merely the presupposition of a fictional vision but a prefiguring of the Resurrection for which even the blessed yearn.
In the first chapter, I study signal theological treatments of this problem prior to Dante: those of Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Eriugena, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Siger of Brabant. In the second, I examine and reinterpret Purgatorio XXV in depth and in extended poetic and philosophical context. In the third, I consider objections to this thesis and its implications for several interpretative debates.