Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina (Latin: [ˈdeus eks ˈmaː.kʰi.na]: / / or / /; plural: dei ex machina) is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has "painted himself into a corner" and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or as a comedic device.
Origin of the expression
Deus ex machina, from Latin deus, meaning "a god", ex, meaning "from", and machina, meaning "a device, a scaffolding, an artifice", is a calque from Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός (apò mēkhanḗs theós), meaning "god from the machine". Such a device was referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica (lines 191–2), where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a "god from the machine" to resolve their plots "unless a difficulty worthy of a god's unraveling should happen" [nec deus intersit, nisi dignus uindice nodus inciderit; nec quarta loqui persona laboret]. He was referring to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.
More than half of Euripides' extant tragedies employ a deus ex machina in their resolution, and some critics claim that Euripides invented it, although Aeschylus employed a similar device in his Eumenides. A frequently cited example is Euripides' Medea, in which the deus ex machina, a dragon-drawn chariot sent by the sun god, is used to convey his granddaughter Medea, who has just committed murder and infanticide, away from her husband Jason to the safety and civilization of Athens. In Alcestis, the eponymous heroine agrees to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband, Admetus. At the end Heracles shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death, restoring her to life and to Admetus.
The device was not without its ancient critics. Perhaps the earliest recorded critical reference to this device is in Plato's dialogue Cratylus, 425d, though it is made in the context of an argument unrelated to drama.
In the characters too, exactly as in the structure of the incidents, [the poet] ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable, so that it is either necessary or probable that a person of such-and-such a sort say or do things of the same sort, and it is either necessary or probable that this [incident] happen after that one. It is obvious that the solutions of plots too should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance, as in the Medea and in the passage about sailing home in the Iliad. A contrivance must be used for matters outside the drama — either previous events which are beyond human knowledge, or later ones that need to be foretold or announced. For we grant that the gods can see everything. There should be nothing improbable in the incidents; otherwise, it should be outside the tragedy, e.g., that in Sophocles' Oedipus.—Poetics, (1454a33–1454b9)
Aristotle praised Euripides, however, for generally ending his plays with bad fortune, which he viewed as correct in tragedy, and somewhat excused the intervention of a deity by suggesting that "astonishment" should be sought in tragic drama:
Irrationalities should be referred to what people say: that is one solution, and also sometimes that it is not irrational, since it is probable that improbable things will happen.
In Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae the playwright parodies Euripides' frequent use of the crane by making Euripides himself a character in the play and bringing him on stage by way of the mechane.
In modern literature
A deus ex machina is generally deemed undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic (although it is sometimes deliberately used to do this) and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though perhaps more palatable, ending. Following Aristotle, Renaissance critics continued to view the deus ex machina as an inept plot device, although it continued to be employed by Renaissance dramatists; Shakespeare used the device in As You Like It, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.
During the politically turbulent 17th and 18th centuries, the deus ex machina was sometimes used to make a controversial thesis more palatable to the powers of the day. For example, in the final scene of Molière's Tartuffe the heroes are saved from a terrible fate by an agent of the compassionate, all-seeing king — the same king that held Molière's career and livelihood in his hands.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche criticized Euripides for making tragedy an optimistic genre via use of the device, and was highly skeptical of the "Greek cheerfulness", prompting what he viewed as the plays' "blissful delight in life". The deus ex machina as Nietzsche saw it was symptomatic of Socratic culture, which valued knowledge over Dionysiac music and ultimately caused the death of tragedy:
But the new non-Dionysiac spirit is most clearly apparent in the endings of the new dramas. At the end of the old tragedies there was a sense of metaphysical conciliation without which it is impossible to imagine our taking delight in tragedy; perhaps the conciliatory tones from another world echo most purely in Oedipus at Colonus. Now, once tragedy had lost the genius of music, tragedy in the strictest sense was dead: for where was that metaphysical consolation now to be found? Hence an earthly resolution for tragic dissonance was sought; the hero, having been adequately tormented by fate, won his well-earned reward in a stately marriage and tokens of divine honour. The hero had become a gladiator, granted freedom once he had been satisfactorily flayed and scarred. Metaphysical consolation had been ousted by the deus ex machina.—Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche argues that the deus ex machina creates a false sense of consolation that ought not to be sought in phenomena. His denigration of the plot device has prevailed in critical opinion.
Some 20th-century revisionist criticism suggests that deus ex machina cannot be viewed in these simplified terms, and contends that the device allows mortals to "probe" their relationship with the divine. Rush Rehm in particular cites examples of Greek tragedy in which the deus ex machina serves to complicate the lives and attitudes of characters confronted by the deity whilst simultaneously bringing the drama home to its audience. Sometimes, the unlikeliness of the deus ex machina plot device is employed deliberately. For example, comic effect is created in a scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian when Brian, who lives in Judea in 33AD, is saved from a high fall by a passing alien space ship.
In the classic novel Lord of the Flies the rescue of the savage children by a passing navy officer (which author William Golding called a "gimmick") is viewed by some critics as a deus ex machina. The abrupt ending conveys to the audience the terrible fate which would have afflicted the children (in particular Ralph) if the officer had not arrived at that moment.
J. R. R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe to refer to a sudden turn of events that ensures the protagonist does not meet some impending fate. He also referred to the Great Eagles that appear in several places in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as "a dangerous 'machine'." Some critics have argued that eucatastrophe, and in particular the eagles, exemplify deus ex machina. For example, they save Frodo and Sam from certain death on Mount Doom in The Return of the King. Others contend that the two concepts are not the same, and that eucatastrophe is not merely a convenience, but is an established part of a fictive world in which hope ultimately prevails.
Deus ex machina was also used by Charles Dickens in the Oliver Twist, when in the very peak of climax, Rose Maylie turns out to be the long-lost sister of Agnes, and therefore Oliver's aunt and she marries her long-time sweetheart Harry, allowing Oliver to live happily with his saviour, Mr. Brownlow.
- Random House Dictionary
- Confer: "ἀπὸ μηχανηϛ θεὸς [ἡμιν] ἐπεφάνηϛ" [You are by your epiphany a veritable god from the machine], as quoted in The Woman Possessed with a Divinity, fragment 227, as translated in Menander: The Principal Fragments (1921) by Francis Greenleaf Allinson; this is one of the earliest occurrences of the phrase which became famous in its Latin form as Deus ex machina.
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