On page 167 of his translation of Inferno, Anthony Esolen gives the following definition: “A comedy is a song written in the humble style wherein the main character begins in grief and trouble and ends in happiness.”
Wonderful, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t wish to be scooped up in such a Commedia?
But this Esolen, though he aims to be helpful, can be both pushy and pious. I had a boyfriend once just like him. This boyfriend used to get me in the car and start playing cassettes of motivational speakers. At certain points, he’d pause the tape and say, “See? See? That’s what you’re doing wrong.”
This is exactly how Esolen uses his commentaries on Dante. Everything Dante says he uses for some heavy-handed moral point he wants to make.
On the other hand, it seems very appropriate to argue over Dante, who was, after all, the world’s most artful picker of fights. Not once in the one hundred cantos of his Commedia does he say “Why can’t we just get along?”
There’s something to be said for an argumentative version. So I read Mandelbaum for beauty, Hollander for the notes, and Esolen for arguments.