Summary and Analysis
Hermione, left alone, expresses her hatred for Pyrrhus, whose very apology was indifferent and cold, and then her horror at the thought that she may at any moment be responsible for his death. Cleone arrives to tell her that the procession to the temple is taking place. Andromache, neither sad nor joyful, walks obediently with Pyrrhus, who seems untroubled and radiantly happy.
Orestes and his Greeks are already at the temple, Cleone reports, but she is not certain whether Orestes will strike the fatal blow or not; he is hesitating, afraid to earn the dreadful names of assassin and regicide. Infuriated, Hermione cries that she is sure he will let the occasion pass. Her mother, Helen of Troy, found thousands of men to fight and die for her, but Hermione cannot persuade even one to avenge her. She will go herself to strike down Pyrrhus or perhaps Orestes.
Racine delays the action to emphasize the horror of Pyrrhus' impending death, or rather the consequences of that death. What chills the audience is not the murder, but its attendant circumstances. Hermione is not killing in cold blood. Her action is impulsive, unconsidered. She is dimly aware that she is about to make a mistake. So we tremble at the prospect of the moral catastrophe she is preparing for herself.
Anticipation blends with suspense. Hermione's anguish leads naturally to hesitation. Her decision, after all, is not irrevocable. A change of heart, one word to Orestes — and the tragedy can be averted. So, to the very end of the scene, the issue is unresolved.
However skillfully conceived, the real interest of the first scene is not dramatic effect but psychological insight. Hermione's soliloquy is the expression of a state of mind. In the most vivid terms, Racine does not explain — he recreates. He is not an analyst speaking of complexes but an artist reproducing the very language of passion. Hermione expresses her conflicting emotions — love, hate, humiliation, dread — in an incoherent flood of words. There are disorderly questions, reminiscences, abrupt resolutions, reservations — in short, the outpourings of a soul in agony.
Scene 2 completes Hermione's portrait, the portrait of inextinguishable love. Even at this late moment, when Pyrrhus cruelly demonstrates his preference for Andromache, she cannot resign herself to his indifference and hopes for at least a sign of remorse.
Anxious to extract from the situation the maximum of horror, Racine adds to Pyrrhus' rejection the apparent betrayal by Orestes. Hermione is confronted for a moment with the ignominious prospect of a double slight. The thought is unbearable and Hermione is possessed with the primitive desire to kill.
Orestes, who momentarily has disappeared from view, but in whose actions we are intensely interested at this critical juncture is indirectly brought back on stage by the confidante. We are informed by Cleone, in terms that for all their brevity speak volumes, of the moral struggle that he is waging. She also gives us the essentials of Pyrrhus' wedding. We must admire the economy and skill with which Racine sustains several parallel actions and psychological developments.