Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 1-2
Pylades is trying to calm an enraged Orestes, who has decided to carry off Hermione. Orestes also hates Pyrrhus, who, he says, had no interest in Hermione until Orestes declared his love for her. Hermione was about to accept him and showed her wrath against Pyrrhus.
Pylades says he is deceiving himself, that Hermione still loves Pyrrhus and would never leave him. Orestes would do better to flee her; if he kidnaps her, she will spend the rest of her life hating him. But Orestes is determined; he has suffered enough, and it is her turn to suffer. If this makes him a criminal, it is preferable to suffer for a crime than to suffer, as he has up until now, for doing no wrong at all. But there is no need for Pylades to share the risk of kidnapping Hermione.
Pylades assures his friend that he will help him carry off the princess that very night. But now it is important for Orestes to dissimulate and keep secret what he intends to do.
This advice is tested when Hermione enters and explains to Orestes that she is marrying Pyrrhus out of duty, and that though her love for Orestes was great enough that she was willing to leave with him, she must now carry out her royal responsibilities. Orestes finds such perfidy almost intolerable, but manages to restrain himself and bid her a formal farewell.
If acts had titles like the chapters of a book, Act III might be called "The Gathering Storm." The tragedy latent in the situation is now about to erupt. Orestes' glimpse of happiness has transformed his passive grief into a determination to act. He tells Pylades that he is tired of this resignation and that he is about to resort to desperate measures. Racine's preparations have made the threats entirely convincing. Orestes' love is powerful enough to provoke his volcanic despair, which is exasperated by his pride, which has been wounded by Pyrrhus' victory.
Here for the first time the frightening quality of his love is clearly expressed. It has lost all nobility and abnegation. Orestes wants to kidnap Hermione, not in order to conquer her love, but to make her share his unhappiness, to wring tears from her.
Paradoxically, the same decision increases his stature to tragic proportions. It is not merely a private vendetta but a grandiose act of defiance of a mortal against an iniquitous fate that has singled him out in order to persecute him.
Orestes faithfully follows Pylades' advice to camouflage his emotions. His perfect hypocrisy proves the seriousness of his intentions. Otherwise, he would not have deprived himself of the bitter pleasure of venting his despair. Hermione suspects that there is something unnatural about such meekness. The audience knows it too. What Racine has achieved is the lull before the storm, the anxious silence on the battlefield before the attack.