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As they descend into the second circle of Hell, Dante notes that it’s a little smaller than the first circle. (This is because Hell is shaped like a funnel, with each successive circle shrinking a little.)
There, the huge bull-like judge Minos appears, looming over a great crowd, out of which each individual steps forward to have his say.
Dante explains that Minos judges where all sinners go by twining his tail into coils. The number of coils determines which circle the sinner goes into.
The very ugly Minos pauses his perpetual dissing of sinners long enough to warn Dante and Virgil to be careful whom they trust.
Virgil shoots back with a "God protects us" line, but we can see right through him. He’s as scared as Dante.
On that note, they come to the edge of a cliff and see a hurricane-strength whirlwind buffeting the souls of the Lustful (promiscuous, impulsive).
Dante compares them to birds like starlings, cranes, and doves because of their helplessness against the wind and because of the cacophonous cries they emit.
Virgil, trying to show off, names a bunch of the souls trapped there: Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, Tristan…
Star-struck by such names, Dante feels sorry for them and calls out to a couple, wanting to talk to them.
They approach and the female soul speaks. She’s really polite and talks in a highfalutin’ style, as if she’s stuck in the rhetoric of courtly love. She thanks Dante for being so kind as to speak nicely to her, then tells her story.
She’s Francesca da Rimini, an Italian (from Ravenna) and, in terms of blood, something like a princess. During her life, she was forced into a loveless political marriage with a guy called Gianciotto Malatesta.
However, she fell in love with her husband’s younger brother Paolo and had an affair with him. When Gianciotto discovered their adultery, he killed them both. (Yes, he’s in a deeper level of Hell, Francesca tells us.)
Dante is so moved by the unfairness of it all that he starts crying. He tends to do this a lot. And he asks how exactly she fell in love.
Francesca says that one sunny day, she and Paolo were innocently reading a book. But not just any book. This one portrayed the knight Lancelot being hopelessly smitten by Queen Guinevere. When they get to the part where Lancelot kisses Arthur’s queen, Paolo and Francesca followed suit and shared a passionate kiss. We know it’s passionate because "all his body trembled" and on that day they "read no more."
Francesca blames the book for her sin, calling it a Gallehault (the character in Arthurian legend who encourages Lancelot in his forbidden affair with Guinevere).
As Francesca concludes her story, her soul mate Paolo bawls his eyes out.
Dante, the deepest fibers of his soul stirred to the extreme by their tragic story, passes out, as if dead.