They May Look Like Idiots

image from A Fool and His Sceptor1

The Marx Brothers' identities relate to a historical and literary tradition--the fool. First, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo physically appear as fools to us. They wear absurd clothing befitting the motley tradition, and they have obvious signs of what they are, such as a grease-paint mustache and a horn. Second, they utilize typical fool routines. The barbershop scene in Monkey Business connects to a series of routines that date back to at least 1563 and that frequently involve an unsuspecting participant.2 Fools also have a tradition of eluding their foils through their foolishness and their semianonymity, which expresses itself through odd names.3 If Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are not odd enough, we can add Rufus T. Firefly and Dr. Hackenbush.

Immediately, through the connection between odd names and elusiveness, we can begin to question the solidity of the fool's
A Night at the Opera
Driftwood: Do you know why I sat with her?

Mrs. Claypool: No.

Driftwood: Because she reminded me of you.

Mrs. Claypool: Really?

Driftwood: Of course. That's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you--your eyes, your throat, your lips. Everything reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that?
identity. However, we should find this questioning to be self-reflective. The fool has always served a mimetic function; his actions point to the foolishness of society in general. Our identities are tied to the identities of fools.4 When we see what fools are saying, we should examine how that statement applies to us.

The image at the top of this page--with its motto that loosely translates as "a proper action"--shows us the dynamic through which fools force us into self-examination. We often need something bizarre or outrageous to snap us into thinking.5 The fool's strange behavior, while seeming inappropriate, provides an important function in society, and is therefore proper. In the image, the man's reflection shows that his actions can be comical even if he takes them seriously. The image also shows the way that absurdity can help us focus our self-reflection.

The Marxes have no problem providing such abnormal moments through both physical and verbal antics. They create such a high degree of chaos that we have to reconsider what we are seeing. In the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, a very tiny room fills up with far too many people, causing Groucho, as Otis Driftwood, to yell, "Tell Aunt Minnie to send up a bigger room." Of course, the humor comes from the impossibility of sending up a room. However, his comment, coupled with the severe overcrowding, draws attention to the strange ways that society functions, and turns on our imaginations. In attacking the world around them, they attack our standard ways of thinking, as many of the scenes examined throughout this site show. This attack on our accepted doctrines opens the door for new conceptions to emerge.


1Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern University Press, 1969, p. 35.

2Willeford, p. xvi.

3Willeford, p. xix.

4Willeford, p. 30.

5Willeford, p. 35.