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deus ex machina. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

Deus ex machina, a Latin term that means “god
from the machine,” refers to a theatrical device
used in ancient Greek drama, most conspicuously
in the fifth century B.C. by the tragedian EURIPIDES.
At the end of a play, when the character’s difficulties
seem beyond resolution, a deity such as Apollo
or Athena (the “god”) soars onto the stage in a basket
maneuvered by a mechanical contraption (the
“machine”), untangles the plot, and extricates the
In contemporary usage, the term refers to any
extraordinary mechanism or intervention used to
resolve a situation in a theatrical or literary work.
Even in Euripides’ time, the agent was not always a
deus, or god. For example, his Electra tells the tale
of the ill-fated and murderous house of Aetreus
and of the final deadly acts that will bring the familial
curse to an end. While the great general
Agamemnon is fighting in the Trojan War, his
daughter Electra and son Orestes, with some justification,
slay their adulterous mother and her
lover. Immediately, they are stricken and incapacitated
by what they have done, at which point
Zeus’s sons Castor and Polydeuces (the deus ex
machina) appear overhead to mete out the appropriate
punishment: Electra is exiled, and Orestes is
pursued by vengeful spirits.
In another of Euripides’ plays, Medea, the protagonist
is princess of Colchis and a sorceress who
has tricked her father, murdered her brother, and
fled her homeland, all to help her beloved Jason
procure the mythic Golden Fleece. The self-serving
Jason, however, has taken a Corinthian princess as
his bride.Medea punishes him by slaying their two
young sons.As Jason swears vengeance,Medea appears
above the house in a dragon-drawn chariot,
poised to travel to Athens and seek refuge with the
old king Aegeus. For some critics of deus ex
machina, this is an unsatisfactory resolution to the
plot, because Medea does not solve the princess’s
problem; rather, she complicates it.
A more satisfactory use of deus ex machina is in
Euripides’ Alcestis. In this play, Admetus, king of
Thessaly, is fated to die young. The god Apollo intervenes
on his behalf by persuading Death to take
a substitute. Death agrees, on the condition the
substitution is voluntary. Admentus assumes his
elderly parents will die in his stead, but it seems
they are enjoying their twilight years and refuse.
Alcestis,Admetus’s wife, however, volunteers to die
in his place. The legendary hero Heracles, godlike
but not a deity, travels to the underworld, successfully
wrestles Death, and, as the deus ex machina,
returns the queen of Thessaly to life.
The use of external or improbable means to
solve a dramatic problem is generally considered a
clumsy plot device and suggests the dramatist was
unable to resolve the story in a more acceptable
dramaturgical fashion. In the fourth century B.C.,
the philosopher ARISTOTLE gave his opinion of the
use of such a device in his Poetics, an instruction
manual of sorts for aspiring tragedians:
In portraying character, too, as in constructing
the events, the poet should always look for
what is either necessary or probable, so as to
have a given agent speak or act either necessarily
or probably, and [hence] to have one event
occur after another either necessarily or probably.
It is evident, then, that the resolutions of
the plots, too, should come about from the plot
itself and not by the use of deus ex machina, as
in the Medea. . . .
Some contemporary Euripedean scholars have
argued that he deliberately used the device to make
a dramatic statement. These scholars suggest that
Euripides used supernatural or superhuman forces
to make an ironic comment on the events and to
restore a sense of myth and the supernatural to his
stories after the tragic meaning of the human
drama was already conveyed. Regardless of the impact
of the earliest uses of deus ex machina, the device
has evolved throughout time to become the
means by which the resolution is achieved in most
stories in world literature.
Works Featuring Examples of
Deus Ex Machina
Euripides. Euripides I. Translated by Richmond Lattimore,
et al. Edited by David Grene and Richmond
Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1955.
Euripides. Euripides V. Translated by Emily Townsend
Vermeule, et al. Edited by David Grene and Richmond
Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1959.
A Work about Deus Ex Machina
Porter, John R. Studies in Euripides’ Orestes. Leiden,
Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 1994.

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