The best is when the person clearly being castigated in the poem is not identified, as in this passage, from the first circle, which is where the neutrals hang out. These guys didn't really do anything wrong, but they don't get to get into Heaven because they didn't do much GOOD either.:
After I recognized a few of these,
I saw and knew the shade of his
who, through cowardice, made the great refusal.
At once with certainty I understood
this was that worthless crew
hateful alike to God and to his foes.
These wretches, who never were alive,
were naked and beset
by stinging flies and wasps
that made their faces stream with blood,
which, mingled with their tears,
was gathered at their feet by loathsome worms. (III.58-69)
But WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN? Hollander notes an argument between scholars who think it could be Pope Celestine V (who gave up the position after a very short reign and was succeeded by a Pope Dante hated), but other people think it's Pontius Pilate or Esau. There are so many notes like this, noting the arguments that have been made about these things since the Comedy was published. The sheer number of commentaries on the poem is sort of mind-boggling. There are very few works, classic or not, that have gotten this kind of attention. Much less that have been so lauded from the moment they were published. According to Hollander, at least 10 commentaries on the poem have survived from the first twenty years after Dante's death. TEN. I can't even wrap my mind around that. (Maybe we could trade them for a lost Euripedes play? No? Darn.)
And we come to what is, so far, my favorite passage. He's in limbo, hanging out with Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil:
After they conversed a while,
they turned to me with signs of greeting,
and my master smiled at this.
And then they showed me greater honor still,
for they made me one of their company,
so that I became the sixth amidst such wisdom. (IV.97-102)
The notes on this tercet are awesome. Hollander talks a bit about the discomfort people feel with Dante including himself in this group, especially since before the Inferno he hadn't published much of substance (except the Vita Nuova), so he had very little upon which to hang his self-important little Italian hat. To anyone reading it, it's clear that he's a major poet. But I like my authors with a liberal dose of angst and self-hatred. Right, F. Scott?
However, Hollander clearly thinks he belongs in the group of poets in which he places himself, claiming: "It was a dangerous gesture for him to make. It is redeemed by his genius." (n. IV.102)
As William Goldman said (not about Dante, but it seems apropos):
"You had to admire a guy who called his own new book a classic before it was published and anyone else had had a chance to read it. Maybe he figured if he didn't do it, nobody would, or maybe he was just trying to give the reviewers a helping hand."