Racine combines in this play a plot and characters drawn from the ancient tale of the Trojan war with his own strict rule of the “three unities” of tragedy. The play unfolds in a single day, in one room, and all the characters and action are settled on one problem, the reconciliation of four incompatible passions.
Orestes, son of Agamemnon, loves Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and betrothed of Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son. Pyrrhus loves his captive, Andromache, but she is devoted only to her son and the memory of her dead husband, Hector. Orestes’ arrival as the Grecian envoy, demanding the death of Hector’s son, unleashes the conflict: Will Pyrrhus repudiate Hermione, daughter of Helen for whom Troy perished, in order to marry Hector’s widow and befriend his son? Will proud Andromache marry the son of her husband’s slayer, in order to save the last of Hector’s family? What is the reaction of Hermione to Pyrrhus’ indecisions and rejections? How will the unstable Orestes choose between his sacred duty as an envoy and the demands of the slighted Hermione? Racine defines his characters in such a way as to leave no escape. The supple and elegant alexandrine verses which paint their uncontrollable passions hurry them along to destruction.
By curtain’s fall, Andromache is acting as the widow of slaughtered Pyrrhus, Hermione is a suicide, Orestes runs mad and Fury-driven to future horrors. Racine has used the formal restraints of tragic...
(The entire section is 488 words.)