Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
Pyrrhus appears with his former tutor, Phoenix, and Orestes, after some introductory compliments, makes his demand. Surely Pyrrhus must realize that the rest of Greece cannot feel at ease as long as any male of the line of Hector is left alive to raise the Trojans against them once again?
Pyrrhus is predictably irritated — first, that the other Greek states should meddle in his affairs, and second, that they should demand from him a captive fairly taken in war. Just what threat can Troy present, he demands, now that it is only a heap of ruins and dead bodies? Now that the war is over, he has no intention of murdering a child; what the hazards of fate have saved he will not destroy.
Orestes reminds him that Astyanax was saved by trickery, not by fate; another child was substituted for him and killed in his place. And if Pyrrhus does not kill him, the rest of Greece may arrive in Epirus to do it. Affronted, Pyrrhus invites Greece to attack him if it wishes — and dares; his betrothal to Hermione will not prevent him from fighting her father, Agamemnon, if necessary. If Orestes wishes, however, he may pay a visit to his cousin Hermione.
The interview between Orestes and Pyrrhus, in spite of the courtly tone, is already marked by dramatic tension. Racine has completely disposed of the exposition in the first scene. The second scene is more in the nature of a confrontation. Orestes, in the name of the Greeks, demands that Astyanax be handed over to them and sacrificed. Pyrrhus flatly refuses. His refusal is not only unequivocal but insulting. He jeers at Orestes for seeking the death of a harmless child and at the Greeks for their excess of caution (which, he implies, is really cowardice). Sternly he denounces the other Greek states for interfering with his rights. His final defiance, as he challenges the Greeks to attack him and curtly dismisses Orestes, sets an ominous tone.
The brevity and rudeness of Pyrrhus' response here makes us, in view of the situation, respect him rather than disapprove of his attitude. However, as we shall soon see, this brutal lack of consideration is part of Pyrrhus' character, and the innocent will suffer from it as well as the guilty.