Dante is moving through the circle of the lustful (Comedy, Canto 5) and sees a host of classical lovers. Among them is Semiramis, less famous than Dido or Cleopatra, but an exceedingly important illustration of how lust misshapes language and law. Rodney Payton explains (A Modern Reader’s Guide To Dante’s Inferno, 49):
Semiramis “was Empress of many tongues,” that is, she was Empress of Babylon. Babylon was ancient ancient empire made up of many peoples who spoke diverse languages. Its very name conjures up corruption and license since that is the way it was consistently portrayed in the Bible and in Christian symbolism. The name Babylon is related to the word ‘babel,’ meaningless speech, and the name of the spot where the Tower of Babel, the immediate cause of incomprehensible language, was built. Semiramis is supposed to have wanted to marry one of her own children. Reasonably such acts were illicit even in Babylon. Semiramis changed the laws so that relations between parent and child were legal. Hence, “She made lust licit in her law” (57)
In the original Italian, the line is a pun: “The line in the original reads ‘che libito fe’licito in sua Iegge.’ The word ‘licit’ (licito) differs in only one letter from the word ‘lust’ (libito). Semiramis twists language in an attempt to make her own desires legal. Of course, Semiramis’ saying that abominable practices were right does not make them so anymore than anyone who corrupts language in such a way really avoids the issue of morality. In addition to her associations with the sin of lust and the corruption of language, Semiramis can logically be considered a symbol of the enemies of the Children of God, the Hebrews, since in the Old Testament Babylon is the place of captivity for the Children of God.”
Semiramis is crude. Francesca, with the pitiful tale of illicit love and murder, is subtle. But Payton argues (drawing on an article from Anna Hatcher and Mark Musa) that she is every bit as misleading. In the medieval version of Lancelot and Guinevere, it was well known that the latter initiated their physical love with a kiss. Francesca tells the story otherwise, with Lancelot making the first move, and says too that Paolo made the first adulterous move on her too.
Payton writes, “knowledgeable readers in Dante’s time would note this distortion and understand that it was Francesca, as it was Guinevere, who was the leading person in the affair as, indeed, her leading role in the conversation suggests. If so, this interpretation further strengthens the assertion that the mention of the corruption of language by Semiramis foreshadows the less obvious, and therefore more dangerous, example of Francesca.” (55)
No fault divorce, the decriminalization of adultery, gay marriage, the corruptions of our language to make sexual perversion seem normal: None of it would have surprised Dante.