Deus Ex Machina or Not? (Spoilers!)

One of the really great things about Euripides’ works is that he innovated and even challenged his predecessors (much to the chagrin of Aristotle.) Aside from the Greek Chorus

the most recognizable trope of Greek drama is the deus ex machina, literally “god out of/from the machine.” It referred to a common event in Greek plays where an actor descended to the playing area using a crane. This notion of gods descending is common in Greek drama, but deus ex machina is now a term for “an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way.”

Aristotle loved to accuse Euripides of invoking the deus ex machina in the modern sense, suggesting that the use of Helios’ chariot as a means of escape in Medea was unfounded. The problem is, Aristotle was missing the point. As we already discussed when talking about the repeated final choral passage, Medea points out the gods complicity in the foreign witch’s crimes, and assistance from her grandfather the sun god is the icing on the cake. The gods don’t interfere when you want them too, Euripides suggests, and they do when you’d rather your ex-wife would stay on the ground so you could punch her or hug her or cry on her or all of the above. (Poor Jason doesn’t seem to really know what to do in that situation.)

What about Alcestis, which has an actual outside [semi-divine] force that saves the day built into the myth it’s based on? Euripides tricks his audience a bit by having Apollo open the piece by bickering with Death. Though the divine poet and prophet son of Zeus can’t manage to defeat Death, Zeus’ demigod son can.

And maybe Aristotle is right. Death is an unsolvable problem, and Heracles is an unlikely solution. But Euripides does an excellent job of justifying Heracles’ actions, as well as lampshading his role within the piece. When Heracles enters, the Chorus asks him where he is going and he references his Labors. The Chorus explains to him that the task ahead of him in Thrace is even more difficult than he imagined, and Heracles responds: “It sounds like my life and the kind of work I do.” Heracles is a superhero. Somehow, no matter how he tries to go about his business, epic stuff happens to him.

And he rescues Alcestis for a real reason (to apologize for making a loud fool of himself when the house was in mourning.)

In the literal sense, we have a god who descends to the mortal realm to fix things, but he fixes them because he screwed them up in the first place. (This is true of both Apollo and Heracles.)

So shut up Aristotle. You heard me.

That salvation is born from the plot. So shut up.

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