Personal Infernos: Dante and The Favourite

Content Warning: Sexual Abuse, Cannibalism

I was Count Ugolino, I must explain; this reverend grace is the Archbishop Ruggieri: now I will tell you why I gnaw his brain. (Canto XXXIII, lines 16-19)

Hell is a place of one’s own choosing. This was perhaps my most profound takeaway from Dante’s The Inferno. “The sinners’ plights and punishments are not arbitrarily imposed”, Cook and Herzman explain, “on the contrary, they are freely self-chosen” (19). For instance, Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of The Inferno are entangled for eternity, swirling around the second level of hell for their adultery (reflecting the inconsistent nature of lust). When Dante speaks with Francesca he finds her unrepentant, and she persists in blaming others for her sin. So, unable to control herself in life, she is blown by the wind in hell.  Similarly, Farinata, punished for heresy in Canto X, even in death, maintains the bitterness of partisan politics. When speaking with Dante, a member of a rival Italian faction, Farinata cannot help but exchange barbs with him. Farinata, unable to connect with anyone outside his own party, suffers from isolation even though he’s surrounded by others in the same tomb.

Francesca stops with Paolo to tell Dante and Virgil their tragic tale. The two lovers, moved to adultery by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together, are surprised in the act and killed by Francesca’s husband.
Farinata, punished in hell for denying the immortality of the soul, was a leader of an opposing political party before Dante’s birth. He calls out to Dante because of his Tuscan accent and quickly begins to argue about politics. A partisan still does not acknowledge any of the many other dead who share his tomb.

In the final scene of The Favourite we find two of the main characters, Abigail and Queen Anne, suffering a punishment reminiscent of Dante. To set the scene, Abigail (Emma Stone) has completely ousted Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) from Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) favour and taken over her position as the Queen’s woman of the bedchamber and sexual partner. The two differ in a significant way. While Lady Marlborough was calculating, she was also compassionate and honest with the Queen. Abigail, by contrast, is amoral and conniving, concerned only with her own advancement. In the last scene we find Abigail, comfortable and confident, reading a book in the Queen’s bedchamber. When Abigail maliciously steps on one of the Queen’s rabbits (which for the Queen represent her dead children) the Queen, sick in bed, stands up and orders that Abigail “rub her legs” (a sexual euphemism used earlier in the film). Abigail begrudgingly kneels before the Queen and does as asked while the Queen pulls Abigail’s hair. The camera fades between Abigail, traumatized, the Queen, despondent, and then superimposes the image of rabbits over both. The end.

This ending is obtuse. Although open to interpretation, it reminded me of a particular portion of The Inferno involving Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. These two are on the lowest circle of hell, in a section assigned to those who betray family, country, guests, and benefactors – those to whom one owes a special duty of care. When Dante and Virgil come across this happy pair, he describes the scene as follows:

I saw two shades frozen in a single hole
packed so close, one head hooded the other one;
the way the starving devour their bread, the soul
above had clenched the other with his teeth
where the brain meets the nape.
(Canto XXXII, lines 124-29)

Ugolino is chewing on the brain of Ruggieri, with whom he conspired to take control of Pisa from Ugolino’s nephew, Nino. However, as soon as Nino was removed Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino, imprisoning him with his sons and grandsons. Later, he ordered their cell to be nailed shut, leaving them all to starve together. Ugolino describes to Dante how while imprisoned he watched his sons and grandsons starve to death and then, driven by starvation, he admits that he ate them to live just a little bit longer.

Prima facia there are several similarities between these two pairs, even though the depravity of their actions and scope of their suffering differs greatly. Both pairs, for example, although they despise each other, are in close physical contact. They represent a perversion of intimacy which twists closeness into isolation and which distorts normally pleasurable activities (sex and eating) into something monstrous.

Yet, using Dante’s notion of treachery and betrayal we can find deeper ways these two pairs are connected. On a personal level, Abigail betrays Queen Anne’s affections for personal gain. When she discovers that Lady Marlborough and Queen Anne are, in fact, lovers she sees the opportunity to replace Lady Marlborough in the Queen’s bed. Unlike Lady Marlborough, though, Abigail by the end of the film has no genuine affection for the Queen. Instead, in fear of again becoming destitute, she seeks privilege above all else. Morality be damned. In her words:

I must take control of my circumstance. I will need to act in a way that meets with the edges of my morality. And when I end up on the street selling my asshole to syphilitic soldiers, steadfast morality will be a fucking nonsense that will mock me daily.

Embracing the amorality of the royal court, Abigail betrays both Lady Marlborough (who acts as her benefactor in the first half of the movie) and sexually and emotionally manipulates Queen Anne.

Above: In a moment of perhaps genuine compassion during the beginning of film Abigail and Queen Anne bond over her rabbits, her substitute children. Below: Abigail at the end of the film crushing one of the rabbits underfoot.

Queen Anne, for her part, personally betrays Lady Marlborough, her childhood friend, by exiling her from the court. She also, at Abigail’s suggestion, brings charges of fraud against her causing Lady Marlborough and her husband to flee to Germany. The Queen’s betrayal of Abigail, though, is more subtle. She uses Abigail for sexual and emotional gratification without concern for Abigail’s welfare. She betrays the principles of normal, healthy, human relationships in which people treat each other as an end in and of themselves. This is understandable since as queen, she is accustomed to seeing the only transactional value of people, not their humanity.

But, we come to treachery against one’s country, the sin for which Dante damns Ugolino and Ruggieri. This is to say, not sins against “the nation”, but against the people over which one as power. As a monarch, Queen Anne is the state (see Cameron Kunzelman’s article for how political power shapes this scene) and Abigail’s manipulation of the Queen has an impacts British parliament (switching the party in power to favour Abigail’s coconspirator, Robert Harley) and affects Britain’s military campaign in France.

Queen Anne’s betrayal of the country is more egregious. At the beginning of the film she is content to abandon her duty to govern to Lady Marlborough who skillfully manages the court and state affairs. Queen Anne for her part confines herself to capricious abuses of power. Yet, she never ceases to be the queen. As the monarch, she can at any time weild near absolute power. So it is she who ultimately bears responsibility for the court and, more importantly, how the country is governed. In the midst of a costly war with the French Queen Anne is responsible for the lavish spending of the court, the country’s tax burden, and its military misadventures in France. Near the end of the film when she exiles Lady Marlborough the Queen appears oblivious to the pivotal role Lady Marlborough plays in state and court affairs. She, therefore, replaces her with Abigail without any consideration as to how that decision will affect the country.

Queen Anne furious over her botched makeup upbraids a servant for looking at her, commands him look at her, and then screams at him to close his eyes.

So in the final moments of the film, in their perverse pantomime of intimacy, we see the logical conclusion of Queen Anne and Abigail’s behaviour so far. Two characters who care only for themselves isolated from anyone who has genuine affection for them. Although not evident, it is possible to consider that Queen Anne suffers greater than Abigail. A comparison with Ugolino and Ruggieri might prove helpful.

Perhaps Archbishop Ruggieri suffers worse than Count Ugolino. It is, generally, better to be the one eating, rather than the one being eaten. However, for Ugolino, this act of cannibalism is an eternal reminder of eating his sons and grandsons, knowing he was responsible for their deaths (Cook and Herzman). Is this not, in many ways, a worse punishment? That Ugolino in uncontrollable anger cannot stop inflicting a punishment that hurts him more than his intended victim?

Count Ugolino, whose hunger, in the end, overcomes his grief.

In the same way, Queen Anne in her rage against Abigail for stepping on her rabbit (and undoubtedly for driving away Lady Marlborough) inflicts a punishment that is worse on her than Abigail. We can assume by force Abigail to “rub her legs” the Queen realizes her only recourse to human affection is to order it from a woman she hates and who has no love for her. This leads her to the realization that she has lost everyone she loves and everyone who loves her. No wonder that her thoughts turn towards her lost children (the rabbits).

Most importantly, as with Ugolino and Ruggieri, neither the Queen or Abigail indicate that they feel remorse or acknowledge that they had a duty to care for anyone. Therefore, they are all trapped in the repercussions of their actions. In the end, while the last scene of The Favourite is complex, its message, in this light appears straightforward. We all have an obligation to take care of one another. Those who betray that obligation need not be struck down by divine retribution; they create their own punishment. A hell of their own choosing.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Translated and edited by Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Cook, William and Ronald Herzman. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Course Guidebook. The Teaching Company, 2001.

The Favourite. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Fox Searchlight, 2018.

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