Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scenes 3-4
After Orestes leaves, Phoenix reproaches Pyrrhus for letting Orestes see the woman he loves. Supposing he persuades her to elope with him? Pyrrhus says they may elope any time, as far as he is concerned.
Andromache is passing by, and Pyrrhus inquires if Andromache was coming to see him, but she tells him she was simply on her way to give her imprisoned child his daily kiss. Pyrrhus tells her that a Greek embassy has come to demand her son's death, and Andromache cries that he cannot pronounce so cruel a sentence. Is she to lose everything dear to her in life — and always because of Pyrrhus? Pyrrhus says he has already refused their request and will continue to protect Astyanax even at the cost of another Trojan War. But in return, Andromache surely owes him some gratitude. Will she not accept his suit?
Andromache points out that, widowed, a slave, unhappy, she would be a sad mate for him. Would it not be a nobler act if Pyrrhus respected her sorrow and saved Astyanax simply because he is a child and unfortunate?
Pyrrhus angrily replies that he has killed many men and took the lead in the slaying and burning at Troy, but that Andromache's cruelty to him is greater than his has ever been and her vengeful indifference is excessive. Surely now that the war is over, and he and Andromache share the same enemies, they can become allies. Pyrrhus will free her son, act as a second father to him, even help him avenge Troy upon the Greeks.
Andromache rejects his offer. She is now a slave and accepts her lot. Pyrrhus' love can only bring more misfortunes upon all of them. If he will, he should let Andromache and her son quietly disappear from both Epirus and Greece and keep his vows to Hermione. When he protests that he does not love the Greek princess, she reminds him that his father slew her husband, and that this death will always stand between them. Angry, Pyrrhus threatens to give Astyanax to the Greeks, and Andromache vows that she will then kill herself and rejoin her dead son and husband. Pyrrhus suggests she think over what he has said as she goes to see Astyanax.
Scene 3 provides an important bit of information: it indicates Pyrrhus' thorough indifference to Hermione. Conversely, his impatient dismissal of Phoenix at Andromache's appearance shows the extent of his love for her. The play's development depends largely upon Pyrrhus' feeling for the two women.
The intimations of greatness that Pyrrhus gave in his contemptuous rejection of Orestes' demands are exposed as a sham in his behavior toward Andromache in Scene 4. His protection of her son was not prompted by compassion but by self-interest. It is a weapon to put pressure on Andromache. Astyanax is, after all, negotiable. His safety must be paid for by Andromache's love. Pyrrhus turns out to be not a fearless knight but a crude blackmailer. Brutal soldier that he is, he minces no words, either in his concessions or in his threats.
His crudity only aggravates a conflict that is basically irreconcilable. Andromache cannot possibly love Pyrrhus. He is the major cause of her bitter suffering. In addition, she loves Hector with a constancy that goes beyond the grave. Here, incidentally, Racine vividly demonstrates the effectiveness of drawing upon the literature of the past. The mere mention of Hector's name illuminates for the informed spectator the depth of Andromache's love. That a woman should wish to remain loyal to her dead husband at any cost might seem, in the case of the ordinary marriage, unreasonable, but when that husband is Hector, who led his people against a mighty war machine for ten years and died heroically in defense of his city, her resolve is understandable.
In an interesting essay, the critic Lucien Goldman suggests a thought which further underlines the hopelessness of the situation. He postulates the idea — which the play certainly supports — that Pyrrhus, Hermione, and Orestes lack "awareness." By this he means that they have no ethical sensibilities; they never ask themselves whether an action is right or wrong. Their love is an imperious form of self-indulgence. Consequently, Pyrrhus cannot respect Andromache's legitimate abhorrence of his war exploits or her uncompromising faithfulness to her husband, since both are reactions he would never have himself.
Andromache, by contrast, is utterly moral. She believes in the absolute value of her principles. She is willing to pay with her life and, if she must, with the life of her son, for her convictions. Therefore, if we are to accept Anouilh's concept of tragedy as the absence of hope ("and then tragedy is relaxing because we know there is no more hope, none of that filthy hope. We are trapped like rats, with the heavens on our back"), the tragic impact of Andromache is overwhelming. At the same time, the characters do not yield to despair, and, in spite of their inexorable doom, they continue to struggle, and thus the play retains its suspense and its dynamic tension.
Andromache's method of struggle arouses our interest and our admiration. She defends her principles with intelligence and skillfully plays on Pyrrhus' vanity to protect herself and her son. She at least is neither self-indulgent nor blinded by passion, and she chooses her weapons carefully to achieve her ends.
A minor defect in the scene which must be pointed out is Pyrrhus' superficially gallant language, a concession to a literary style of the time known as "preciosity." It consists of elegant turns of speech, avoiding common and straightforward expressions, and in a mannered way, of expressing love by much talk of "eyes" and "flame," making incongruous comparisons between total war and courtly passions in such phrases as "consumed by more fires than I have lit." Racine, fortunately, is not often guilty of these fashionable lapses in taste. In general, his language is simple and convincing.