No Fear Shakespeare
Macbeth

Spark Publishing. 219 pp. $5.95

No Fear Shakespeare
Hamlet

Spark Publishing. 337 pp. $5.95

No Fear Shakespeare
Julius Caesar

Spark Publishing. 239 pp. $5.95

To screw up literature or not to screw up literature - that is the question.

You probably remember a little Shakespeare from high school, or perhaps you're in high school right now, reading the old boy on SEPTA (in which case, area teachers, I apologize for the info I'm about to provide).

Remember that stirring speech by Marc Antony that began, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears"?

How about "Friends, Romans, countrymen, give me your attention"?

Makes more sense, right? Sounds like Antony's speaking in a Starbucks, trying to get people to ditch their iPods and listen up.

It gets better.

Recall Hamlet's lament?

"Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God! / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!"

Try this translation:

"Ah, I wish my dirty flesh could melt away into a vapor, or that God had not made a law against suicide. Oh, God, God! How tired, stale, and pointless life is to me. Damn it!"

Maybe translation's not such a good thing for kids.

And what about the most famous soliloquy in world literature? Here's the supposedly reader-friendly version:

"The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?"

William Shakespeare, meet Dr. Phil.

And welcome all of you to

No Fear

, the series of Shakespeare trots that suggests we have nothing to fear but old-fogey language itself.

"Have you ever found yourself looking at a Shakespeare play," asks

No Fear

in the boilerplate opening to its books, "then down at the footnotes, then back at the play, and still not understanding?

"You know what the individual words mean, but they don't add up. SparkNotes'

No Fear Shakespeare

will help you break through all that. Put the pieces together with easy-to-read translations. Soon you'll be reading Shakespeare's own words fearlessly - and actually enjoying them."

Or, possibly, turning on

The Simpsons

(a decided cultural upswing from this) to keep yourself awake, rummaging around used bookstores for copies of old Classics Illustrated comic books, or just dropping this whole reading nonsense and text-messaging your friends for the fourth time in the last 20 minutes.

No Fear Shakespeare

undoubtedly

rules

as a good business idea - you figure SparkNotes ran it through focus groups - but arguably misses a few markers on the high cultural plain.

One reason we read great literature from the past - and force it down the throats of young people - is precisely to experience distance from familiar context and language while discovering deeper familiarity amid difference.

That's why the higher Hollywood (so to speak) always avoided actors speaking contemporary Americanese in movies about ancient Greece or Rome. They didn't want Marc Antony sounding like Ed Rendell. Sure, they often inexplicably made their ancient Greeks and Romans speak in British accents, like Britney Spears on a bad day, but no one's perfect.

The

No Fear

folks also forget that Shakespeare's formulations permeate English more than phrases from any other source but the Bible. We're fond of their antique tone. Do we really prefer "more sad than angry" to "more in sorrow than in anger," or "fish salesman" for "fishmonger"? The flavor is lost.

At times, the whole

No Fear

project seems mighty odd, if not odds-bodkins. Marcellus' famous "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" becomes "It means that something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Does "No Fear" pay its hip translators by the word?

The stage instruction that begins Act 1, Scene 1, of

Macbeth

, goes from "Enter three witches" to "Three witches enter."

That made me think

No Fear

translators can't tell the difference between stage directions for actors and describing action for the audience.

And where's the comprehension uptick in "the thane of Cawdor" evolving into - yep, "the thane of Cawdor." Is there one pimply, bespectacled 14-year-old in America, outside of a spelling bee, who can define "thane"?

Finally, there's the chief cowardice of the series, which includes 19 Shakespeare plays. The publishers lack the temerity - make that cojones - to extend their

No Fear

translation to the titles of the Bard's works.

The Taming of the Shrew

remains

The Taming of the Shrew

, not

Slap That B-

.

The Comedy of Errors

stays the same, instead of mutating into

One Jerky Mistake After Another

.

Presumably, it's a branding concern. Gotta get that product into the hands of kids before you start messin' with their minds.

So it's hard not to end up thinking that basic Shakespeare, put through this grinder, becomes "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing." Or, in

No Fear

-ese, "a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning."

Well, it's a free country. Maybe worrying about it is much ado about nothing -

um, a humongous waste of time

. Take your Shakespeare as you like it.

I mean -

your call, dude

.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/

carlinromano.