Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Andromache as a play is first and foremost a satire that exposes the humanity and fallibility of those who society has imbued with power and influence. In their earliest manifestations, the play’s principle characters present themselves as positive archetypes of their political roles. Pyrrhus is the honorable king who will not countenance the murder of a young child; Oreste is the honest diplomat who speaks with the voice of all the Greeks; Hermione is the ideal princess, dedicated to the man she is betrothed to; Andromache herself is a devoted mother who is determined to remain loyal to her dead husband. These external impressions, however, crumble as the selfish and deceptive behaviors of the respective characters play out. While Racine subscribed wholeheartedly to the concept of a feudal nobility, a system he would benefit from during his lifetime in France, his depictionl in Andromache of kings, diplomats, and noblewomen being subject to their emotions reflects his Jansenist beliefs in the inability of human beings to adhere faithfully to their principles.
Racine had multiple involvements with women, mainly actresses, prior to his marriage in 1700, and these women appear to have played a positive role in his life. It was an actress who encouraged him to write both his first and his second play. His portrayal of women in Andromache is not especially favorable, however. Hermione is portrayed not only as emotionally fragile but as violent, having no scruples over committing murder to achieve her aims, while Andromache, though portrayed as a heroic figure initially, ultimately comes across as an opportunist who takes her chance at power after the death of King Pyrrhus. Racine’s antipathy toward women might perhaps be put down to a conscience routinely pricked by the memories of his Jansenist past and to guilt over the accusations of his moralistic family, who wholly disapproved of theater.
Racine feared the capacity of a single emotion to consume the human mind, a theme that appears in a number of his plays, notably in his first tragedy, La Thébaïde: Ou, Les Frères ennemis, where the hatred between two brothers consumes them both beyond redemption, and in Mithridates, where a ruler becomes dazzled and befuddled by his love for a young Greek woman. His vacillations as to the moral value of women are embodied by his publishing a second version of Andromache, in which Andromache is portrayed more sympathetically at the end of the play.