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 fatalistic passion makes Racine’s female characters the central characters of his plays.
The center of the action in Andromache is the question of Pyrrhus’s decision in regard to Astyanax. However, Pyrrhus’s decision is dependent upon Andromache’s decision to marry him or not. Thus, Andromache actually stands at the center of the action. It is also Andromache, not Pyrrhus, who is faced with the tragic dilemma. If she refuses to marry Pyrrhus, her son will die; if she marries Pyrrhus, she will have married the son of Achilles, the man who had killed her husband, Hector, and will consequently degrade and betray the memory of Hector. Although all four of the main characters—Pyrrhus, Andromache, Orestes, and Hermione—are victims of a fatalistic passion, it is Andromache’s decision that will determine the denouement of the play. Hermione, desperately in love with Pyrrhus, is helpless to prevent the marriage of Andromache and Pyrrhus; although he may win Hermione by killing Pyrrhus, Orestes cannot eradicate her passion...
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for Pyrrhus. Racine’s play presents a complex intertwining of suffering, violence, and death, the inevitable results of fatalistic passion.
Racine’s female characters face the most difficult decisions and control the action of the play. Although, given the deterministic orientation of the play’s subject matter and the overwhelming role of fate in the action, the control that the women exercise is really an illusion created both for them and for the audience. It is, however, this illusion of control that gives the play its interest and intensity. Andromache’s decision will decide the fate of her son. Her marriage to Pyrrhus will save him; her refusal will cause his death. However, her acceptance of marriage will destroy her loyalty to the memory of her dead husband. Andromache believes that she can save her son and maintain her loyalty to Hector’s memory by committing suicide after the marriage. Fate has it otherwise, as Pyrrhus is murdered by Orestes’ soldiers. Andromache is recognized as the queen and now must call for vengeance for Pyrrhus’s murder.
Hermione’s situation is different. She is being forced into the role of the rejected woman. She cannot influence Pyrrhus’s decision. With the character of Hermione, Racine portrays the psychology of the woman discarded by the man she loves. Hermione’s love turns to hatred, and she desires vengeance; yet she recoils from the vision of Pyrrhus’s death. Hermione cannot escape her love for Pyrrhus. There is no satisfactory solution for her in life. Fate also takes control from Hermione as Orestes’ soldiers murder Pyrrhus. At the end of the play, she joins Pyrrhus in death.
Racine’s play is totally dependent upon verbal expression; it is a play of psychological analysis rather than of physical action and happenings. In keeping with the rules of unity and the bienséances (decorum and proprieties) demanded by the genre, none of the action, such as the murder of Pyrrhus, is actually done on stage; it is recounted by one of the characters. What is actually presented on the stage is the agony of the individual characters struggling with their unwanted destinies. Racine delves into the souls of his characters and then verbally portrays their emotional and mental struggles.
This focus on verbal expression rather than physical action makes the confidant one of the most essential characters in Racine’s tragedies. The confidant is a maidservant in the case of the female characters and may be either a manservant or a very close friend in the case of the male characters. The confidants serve two purposes: They provide trusted and loyal listeners and give the audience access to the thoughts of the main characters. In addition, the confidants bring crucial information to the main characters and thus move the action along.
With Racine, French classical tragedy reaches its point of perfection. Although playwrights of the eighteenth century had continued to write classical tragedies, none of these plays equal the works of Racine.
Racine’s work has been critical to the continuing development of French literature. An exceptional psychological poet, his analysis of his characters and portrayal of their inner lives provide the foundations for the psychological portrayals found in the works of French writers such as Guy de Maupassant, Colette, and André Gide.