Dante and Virgil descend to the second circle of hell, where there is more suffering and screaming. Dante sees the monstrous Minos, the judge of the underworld in Greek mythology, judging and sentencing souls. When souls come before him, they can't help but confess all their sins. He then sends them to the appropriate area of hell. However many times Minos wraps his tail around himself, that is the numbered circle of hell to which the sinner must go.
Dante borrows Minos from Greek mythology, where he is also a judge of the underworld. (Dante adds in the detail of his monstrous tail.) The specificity of the punishments in hell—with souls going to a particular area of hell to receive a particular punishment—is an important element in God's plan of justice. Punishments are doled out not randomly, but appropriately to correspond with specific sins.
Minos sees the living Dante and stops him, but Virgil tells Minos that Dante is fated and willed by God to pass by, and that thus "hindrance is vain," (5.23). Dante and Virgil keep walking, and enter an area beset by great wind and storm, in which wailing souls are blown about without any hope of rest. Dante learns that these souls are those "carnal sinners" (5.37) who gave into lust.
Like Charon, Minos stops Dante because as a living soul he violates the normal functioning of hell. And just like before, Virgil clears the way with his powerful speech. Since the lustful sinners allowed themselves to be swept up by erotic passion, in hell they are fittingly punished by being endlessly blown about by actual winds.
Dante asks Virgil to identify some of the souls. Dante points out the Mistress of Babel, who legitimized her lustful activities with laws, thus protecting herself from punishment. Next he identifies Semiramis, queen of Babylon; Dido, who killed herself after Aeneas left her in Virgil's Aeneid; and Cleopatra. He also points out Helen, on whose behalf the Trojan War was waged; Paris, the Trojan prince who stole Helen from Greece; and many more Dante doesn't recount.
By including famous biblical and mythological (pagan) figures, Dante insinuates his own work into a lofty literary and cultural tradition. Now how Dante again reminds us of how the real wonder and awe of his journey cannot be grasped through his writing, since there are even more souls he saw than he can name.
Dante is moved by pity for these souls, and asks Dante if he can speak to two of them, whom he sees floating "light as any foam," (5.74). Virgil tells him to wait until the two come nearer and to summon them by the power of love, which drives them. Dante calls to them and they come close, eager to speak with a living soul.
At this early stage of the journey, Dante feels pity for the sinners he encounters. These sinners are in thrall to a bad form of desire, in contrast to the chaste, sacred love between Dante and Beatrice.
One of the lustful souls tells Dante her life's story. Love was the downfall of her and the man she loved; both of them were murdered. Dante recognizes her as Francesca da Rimini, who fell in love with her husband's younger brother, Paolo (the other soul with Francesca in hell), and was killed by her husband. He tells her that her story makes him weep with pity, and he asks her to tell him more. She says that it is painful to remember the happier times of her life, but she agrees to tell more.
Francesca fell prey to a sinful form of desire, very different from Beatrice's love for Dante. Despite her suffering in hell, her ability to speak to Dante and tell her own story guarantees her fame in Dante's poem.
Francesca and Paolo passed the time innocently reading stories about Lancelot and his love for Queen Guinevere. As they read, they occasionally met each other's glances and, one time when they read about Lancelot and Guinevere kissing, they were overcome with desire and kissed each other. "We read no more that day," (5.138) summarizes Francesca. As Francesca tells her story, Paolo wails with grief and Dante is so overcome with pity that he swoons and faints.
Francesca's story demonstrates the apparent danger of erotic stories. Through the form of powerful literature, like the romances of King Arthur's court, lust is transmitted to Francesca and Paolo like a contagious disease. Unlike Francesca, Paolo cannot form articulate speech, but is in such misery that he can only wail. Although Francesca and Paolo are being punished justly by God, Dante is still overcome with pity for them.