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Oor Hamlet

[Adam McNaughtan]

Martin Carthy sang Adam McNaughtan’s three-minute version of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Oor Hamlet, live in Whitby in 1984. This BBC recording was released in 2013 on the digital download album Live in Whitby 1984. Another live performance, recorded at Graffiti’s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 17 October 1991, was released in 2001 on The Carthy Chronicles. He also sang it live at Ruskin Mill. in December 2004. The Chronicles’ notes said:

The author Adam McNaughtan is a teacher and singer from Glasgow. He wrote this stunning retelling of a familiar tale partly as a way of selling Shakespeare to inner city school children. His original is much more Scottish in its expression and Martin’s version anglicises the song for a broader audience.

Adam McNaughtan’s own version of Oor Hamlet is on his 1983 LP Words, Words, Words. It was reissued in 2000 on his double CD The Words I Used to Know. He commented in his liner notes:

The first “act” of Oor Hamlet was written when I was reading the play with a fifth-year class at Cathkin High School. It then lay untouched for a year, until I saw a letter in “Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet” which I felt overstated the case for singing more ballads in folk clubs. The writer, Sheila Douglas, had made a comparison between the plots of the ballads and the plot of “Hamlet”. This proved to be the stimulus I needed and I finished the “poem” very quickly. Even before I sent it off, however, I realised that with slight amendments and additions it could be sung to the tune of The Mason’s Apron.

Jon Boden sang Oor Hamlet as the 28 February 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Rod Paterson sang Oor Hamlet on Bring in the Spirit’s 2024 anthology Bring in the Spirit. He noted:

Adam McNaughtan’s point that a Glesga street song can say in a coupla’ hundred words what took Shakespeare thousands is well proved. Also recorded by the wonderful Martin Carthy.


Martin Carthy sings Oor Hamlet

There was this king sitted in his garden all alone
When his brother in his ear poured a little bit o’ henbane,
Stole his brother’s crown and his money and his widow;
But the dead king walked and got his son and said, “Hey listen, kiddo,
I’ve been killed and it’s your duty to take revenge on Claudius.
You kill him quick an’ clean an’ tell the nation what a fraud he is.”
The kid said, “Right, I’ll do it, but I’ll have to play it crafty,
So that no-one will suspect me, I’ll kid on that I’m a dafty.”

So with all except Horatio—and he counts him as a friend—
Hamlet, that’s the kid, he kids on, he’s round the bend,
And because he isn’t ready for obligatory killing
He tries to make the king think that he’s tuppence of the shillin’.
Takes a rise out of Polonius, treats poor Ophelia vile,
Tells Rosencrantz an’ Guildenstern Denmark’s a bleedin’ gaol.
Then a group of travelling actors, like 7:84,
Arrived to do a special one-night gig in Elsinore.

Hamlet! Hamlet! Actin’ barmy!
Hamlet! Hamlet! Loves his mammy!
Hamlet! Hamlet! Hesitating,
Wonders if the ghost’s a cheat
And that is why he’s waiting.

So Hamlet wrote a scene for the players to enact
So Horatio and him could watch to see if Claudius cracked.
Now the play was called “The Mousetrap”—not the one that’s running now—
And sure enough, the king walks out before the final bow.
So Hamlet’s got the proof that Claudius gave his dad the dose,
The only problem being now that Claudius knows he knows.
So while Hamlet tells his mother her new husband’s not a fit one,
Uncle Claude puts out a contract with the English king as hit-man.

So when Hamlet killed Polonius, the concealed corpus delicti
Was the king’s excuse to send him for an English hempen necktie,
With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make quite sure he got there,
But Hamlet jumped the boat and put the finger straight on that pair.
When Laertes heard his dad had been stabbed through the arras.
He came runnin’ back to Elsinore tout suite hot-foot from Paris,
And Ophelia with her dad killed by the man she was to marry—
After saying it with flowers she committed hari-kari.

Hamlet! Hamlet! No messin’!
Hamlet! Hamlet! Learned his lesson!
Hamlet! Hamlet! Yorick’s crust
Convinced him that men, good or bad,
At last must come to dust.

Then Laertes lost his place and was demanding retribution,
The king says, “Keep your head and I’ll provide you a solution.”
So he arranged a swordfight for the interested parties,
With a blunted sword for Hamlet and a sharp sword for Laertes.
To make double sure—the old belt’n’braces line—
He fixed a poisoned sword-tip and a poisoned cup of wine.
Well the poisoned sword got Hamlet but Laertes went an’ muffed it
’Cause he got stabbed himself and he confessed before he snuffed it.

Then Hamlet’s mammy drank the wine and as her face turned blue,
Hamlet said, “I believe the king’s a baddie through and through.”
“Incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,” he said, to be precise
And made up for hesitating once by killing Claudius twice.
’Cause he stabbed him with the knife and forced the wine between his lips,
He said, “The rest is silence!”—that was, Hamlet had his chips.
They fired a volley over him that shook the topmost rafters,
Then Fortinbras, knee-deep in Danes, lived happy ever after.

Hamlet! Hamlet! All that gory!
Hamlet! Hamlet! End of story!
Hamlet! Hamlet! I’m on my way!
If you thought that was boring
You should read the bloody play.


Transcribed from the singing of Martin Carthy by Reinhard Zierke based on the text on Susanne Kalweit’s Oor Hamlet lyrics page.