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‘Romeo and Juliet is a great plea for peace among men’

My leisure book (the book I read when I tire of trying to understand politics) is an incomplete collection of Pablo Neruda’s essays and letters. His prose is similar to his poetry, imbued with his passion for love and his Communist spirit, but it is more personal, more direct. For example, in “I Refuse to Chew Theories”, Neruda explains why he can’t get through poetry disquisitions, which are written by “overly learned persons” who “obscure the light, to turn bread into a coal, a word into a screw.” Most infuriating for Neruda is the way these “adulators” isolate “the poor poet from his brothers” by telling him “fascinating lies” such as “You are a magus”, and “You are a god of obscurity.”

One of the great pleasures of reading this inimitable poet’s prose is the insight it provides into the way he saw the world and how his own experiences and convictions informed his readings of literary classics.

What is Romeo and Juliet about? Most people will answer with something along the lines of love and death. But Neruda’s description goes further than that, pointing out something which on second thought seems obvious but has been overshadowed by the story’s plot, or, by our simplistic exaltation of it.

Excerpt from ‘Shakespeare, Prince of Light’

This Autumn I was given the task of translating Romeo and Juliet.

I accepted the request with humility. With humility, and with a sense of duty, because in fact I did not feel capable of decanting that passionate love story into Spanish. But I had to do it, since this is the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the year of universal veneration of the poet who opened new universes to man.

Translating with pleasure, and with honor, the tragedy of those star-crossed lovers, I made a discovery.

I realized that underlying the plot of undying love and inescapable death there was a second drama, a second subject, a second principal theme.

Romeo and Juliet is a great plea for peace among men. It is a condemnation of pointless hatred, a denunciation of the barbarity of war, and the solemn consecration of peace.

When Prince Escalus, in moving and exemplary language reproaches the feudal clans who are staining the streets of Verona with blood, we realize that the Prince is the incarnation of enlightenment, of dignity, and of peace.

When Benvolio reproaches Tybalt for his warlike temperament, saying: “I do but keep the peace; put up thy sword,” the fierce swordsman replies: “What! drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word…”

So, peace was despised by some in Elizabethan Europe. Centuries later, Gabriela Mistral–persecuted and insulted for her defense of peace, dismissed from the Chilean newspaper that had published her articles for thirty years–wrote her famous phrase: “Peace, that accursed word.” One sees that the world and the press continued to be governed by Tybalts, by swordsmen.

One reason more, then, to love William Shakespeare, the greatest of all human beings. There will always be time and space to explore in Shakespeare, to lose ourselves, or begin the long journey around his statue, like the Lilliputians around Gulliver. And though we may go a long way without reaching the end, we always return with hands filled with fragrance and blood, with flowers and sorrows, with mortal treasures.

First published on PULSE

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