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Is there a deus ex machina in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex?

Quick answer:

No, there is no deus ex machina in Oedipus Rex.

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I agree that this is a great question. A deus ex machina is an actual intervention of a god or character or sudden change into a play--an intrusion--that makes the plot come out right in the end. It is unexpected and comes out of the blue. It is not considered the best way to resolve a conflict in a play.

There is no deus ex machina to set things right in Oedipus Rex. For instance, Zeus doesn't descend to the stage on a marble throne and declare to Oedipus: "I have decreed that you shalt not pluck your eyes out. You are absolved because you acted in innocence, and I will end the plague!" That would be a deus ex machina in action, bringing about a happy ending. Then we could all have a happy song and dance sequence, praising Zeus for his gracious mercies.

Oedipus Rex is a tragedy precisely because nothing intervenes to prevent the terrible revelation that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. The play's point is that nothing humans do can change what is already fated or foretold. The gods are in control of events, not we mere mortals. Oedipus was filled with pride in thinking he could beat the prophecy and now must suffer the consequences.

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This is a great question. It is best to start with a definition of Deus ex machina. Deus ex machina literally means "god out of a machine." However, often it is taken in a figurative way. In other words, there does not necessarily need to be a god that appears to solve things (although this can be the case, as in the tragedies of Euripides). Often it is a literary device that is used to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem. To put it another way, it is when something unexpected is introduced into the play to bring a resolution.

In Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, if there is a deus ex machina, it is found in the character of Tiresias. He is the blind seer that tells Oedipus his real identity. It is fairly dramatic, because although he is blind, he has supernatural sight. Moreover, he comes off with great authority and he is unafraid of Oedipus, even though he is king.

If we do not want to see the appearance of Tiresias, as a deus ex machina, then the tragedy does not have one. This is not problematic though. In fact, Aristotle in his Poetics stated that this literary device (deus ex machina) was not very eloquent. Resolution, he believed, should come from the play itself.

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