Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Andromache, with its interplay of human passions, its frenzied picture of love turning to fierce jealousy, then to hatred, and finally to madness and crime, began the main cycle of Jean Racine’s dramas. Although his earlier plays, La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis (pr., pb. 1664; The Theban Brothers, 1723) and Alexandre le Grand (pr. 1665, pb. 1666; Alexander the Great, 1714), established Racine’s reputation as a dramatist, Andromache is clearly a more sophisticated and mature work.

The French theater of the seventeenth century accepted, on what it thought was the authority of Aristotle, the three unities of time, place, and action. Racine was especially adept at writing a play that adhered to this rule, and he followed the three unities in the composition of Andromache. The play takes place in the palace of Pyrrhus at Epirus (unity of place). Pyrrhus must decide whether or not to give Astaynax to the Greeks; this decision depends on Andromache’s acquiescence or refusal to marry him. Andromache’s decision will decide her son’s fate, as the Greeks will kill him. Pyrrhus’s decision has major importance for Hermione, who will either be rejected or become his bride. Thus the play’s action is unified around Pyrrhus’s decision and radiates out in a circular pattern always governed by the central problem of Pyrrhus’s decision (unity of action).

The action is easily contained in twenty-four hours (unity of time). A classical tragedy demands a subject matter taken from antiquity; contemporary events are unacceptable. Racine strictly follows this rule. The rules of French classical tragedy also require that plays be written in Alexandrine verse, a twelve-syllable verse with the caesura (pause) after the sixth syllable. Racine is an absolute master of this verse form.

Although Racine had already written other successful plays, such as Alexander the Great, Andromache is his first play that portrays the fatalistic aspect of passion. The deterministic philosophy present in the Greek legends and plays from which Racine took the subjects of his plays already had been part of Racine’s way of thinking. Having been orphaned and having spent three years of his early life at Port Royal with the Jansenists, Racine had been imbued with a sense of fatalistic destiny, of sin and damnation. His characters, especially girls and women, are caught in a devastating destiny from which they cannot escape. In his plays, Racine portrays their suffering and agony in their state of hopelessness. In Bérénice (pr. 1670, pb. 1671; English translation, 1676) and Phèdre (pr., pb. 1677; Phaedra, 1701), Racine continues to perfect his portrayal of the agony of fatalistic passion. This concentration upon...

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