Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scenes 2-4
In answer to Hermione's question as to whether it is love or duty which has brought him to see her, Orestes declares that despite all his efforts to forget her and find death amid cruel barbarians, he has survived and come once again to hear her, more cruel than they, kill him by refusing his love. Hermione reminds him that he has more important duties in Epirus than to talk about love and barbarians, and he tells her that Pyrrhus has refused to give up Astyanax. He has therefore come to try his fate with her, even though he knows it is hopeless.
She tells him she has often longed to see him, that she has always admired him, pitied him, wanted to return his love. Orestes understands: Her heart belongs to Pyrrhus. But Pyrrhus loves another. Angered, Hermione invites him to raise all Greece against Pyrrhus if he wishes, but when he urges her to come too, she temporizes. At last, she tells him to ask Pyrrhus whether he will have Andromache or herself; if he sends her away, she will go with Orestes.
Orestes, left alone, is confident he can make Pyrrhus reject her. But when Pyrrhus arrives he has been listening to the cautious advice of Phoenix, and he tells Orestes that he may take Astyanax. What is more, the following day he will wed Hermione in the presence of the Greek embassy. Stunned, Orestes departs.
Orestes possesses in full that quality of lucidity lacking in Pyrrhus and only partially present in Hermione. He has no illusions about his situation. Like an objective outsider, he reports to Hermione his attempts to forget her, to find surcease in death, only to return to her as enamored as ever. He reads between the lines and rightly interprets Hermione's unconvincing attempts at kindness as an unwitting admission of her passion for Pyrrhus.
Orestes' lucidity is all the more remarkable, since it only emphasizes his bitter fate. It tells him that his love is all-consuming, that his life depends on Hermione's affection, and that this affection never was and never will be his. In other words, his lucidity tells Orestes that he is doomed.
Yet Racine's portrayal of this character — one of the most complex in his works — raises the question of whether Orestes' fate is not at least to some extent self-invited. When he enters, Hermione's mood toward him is relatively kind, but when he leaves, he has effectually antagonized her by a series of self-pitying, tactless, and provocative remarks to which no woman could be expected to respond favorably. In a sense, Orestes' conviction that only misfortune can befall him helps to make that misfortune inevitable.
Hermione, on the other hand, is far less consistent. She is piqued when Orestes reminds her that she has a successful rival, but tries to persuade herself that her desire for revenge is based on hatred and not on jealousy. She reproaches Orestes for his own jealousy and loudly proclaims her indifference to Pyrrhus, but when challenged to leave with Orestes, she lamely invokes filial duty as an excuse to stay.
Scene 2, while basically a character study, does not remain static. It culminates in the preparation of a new ultimatum to Pyrrhus. The quadrille is now about to take another step and nothing but disaster can result from it.
Orestes' monologue in Scene 3 confirms Goldman's thesis of the characters' essential selfishness. Orestes exults at his prospective triumph, ignoring the fact that the fulfillment of his love can only come about at the price of suffering for Hermione.
Orestes' unwise optimism followed by his immediate disappointment is what a critic has called a coup de théâtre — a stunning and unexpected reversal of the previous situation. And indeed the development is highly dramatic. Scene 3 ends on a note of high expectation, but immediately these expectations are dashed by Pyrrhus' unequivocal compliance with Orestes' terms. Irony aggravates the disappointment when Pyrrhus maliciously credits Orestes' arguments and presence with his own change of heart. It should be noted that even suspense is psychological in Racine. The playwright, by choosing a well-known story, renounced any attempt to keep us in the dark about its ending. We know very well that Orestes will not win Hermione. What we do not know is how Orestes will react to his appalling disappointment.