On Sophocles's Philoctetes 1409-44: Heracles ex machine pathos, and aporia

Yuyen Chang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This paper explores how the theatric convention of deus ex machina adopted in Sophocles's Philoctetes 1409-44 works. Instead of seeing the epiphany of Heracles as an illogical stop-gap measure, I will analyze how Heracles optimizes his semi-god role to fix the dramatic impasse. At the first glance, the conciliatory function of Heracles ex machina leads to a deceptively happy ending, which indeed prompts a scrupulous analysis of the issues pertaining not only to the intrinsic structure of the play itself but also to the extrinsic social, political and medical circumstances. To reveal the uncommon finale of Sophocles's Philoctetes and to re-evaluate the strategic application of deus ex machina, I will propose three approaches: first, how the rationale of Heracles's persuasion is related to the major themes of this play and how the adoption of deus ex machina is conducive to the structural coherence; second, how the epiphany of Heracles stimulates a radical critique of the prevalent sophistry and how the heroic image of Philoctetes is reshaped under the political and ethical contexts of the Greek world in the fifth century BCE; third, how Heracles ex machina showcases the incompleteness of the healthcare system in Sophocles's contemporary time. Whereas Heracles's diagnosis and prognosis of Philoctetes's suppurating foot are highly problematic, the underlying concerns of Philoctetes-such as the inadequate understanding of pathogenesis, the undersupply of doctors, and the shortage of medical recourses-constitute an important subject of reflection for Sophocles's contemporaries and for us as well.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-50
Number of pages24
JournalTamkang Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 12 2012


  • Deus ex machina
  • Disease
  • Heracles
  • Philoctetes
  • Sophocles


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