Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 5-7
Cephise recommends that Andromache accept Hermione's ironic advice, and, in fact, Pyrrhus appears with Phoenix, ostensibly on his way to see Hermione. He lingers long enough, however, for Andromache to overcome her reluctance, appeal to him for mercy, and apologize for her former pride. Except for him, she says ambiguously, Andromache would never have embraced the knees of a master. When he rejects her, saying he knows she detests him — would detest even her own son if she owed his life to Pyrrhus — she says she is going to kill herself. Pyrrhus knows perfectly well that he is the author of all her suffering: the death of her father, her family, her husband, and the destruction of her city. Still, she lived for her son and was glad that, if he must be a slave, he had found a noble master. This hope gone, she wants only to rejoin her husband in his tomb.
At these words, Pyrrhus sends Phoenix away. He thought himself strong enough to resist her pleas, he tells Andromache, but he is not. One word from her and her son is safe, but there is only one way in which she can save him. He will risk the anger of all Greece, affront Hermione, and marry Andromache instead, but it must be marriage; he can wait no longer. He will give her a brief space for reflection and then bring her to the temple where her son will also be taken. There he will kill Astyanax or crown her queen; the choice is hers.
It is necessary to the dramatic impact of the play that Andromache appeal to Pyrrhus once again: If she were to passively accept her son's death, Racine would reduce the scope of the work to a poignant anecdote. Tragedy demands violent emotions and heroes larger than life. The curtain cannot descend on a weeping Andromache, mocked by her triumphant rival. However, it is also in character for Andromache to try once more: Patient and responsible, she never ceases to seek a solution which will allow her to reconcile her love for her son and her love for her husband.
Here, however, her agony reaches its sharpest pitch as it becomes increasingly clear that no reconciliation is possible: She must be unfaithful to Hector or see her son slain before her eyes. As the scene between her and Pyrrhus progresses, her hesitation at approaching Pyrrhus gives way to pleading, pleading to panic, and panic to despairing evocations of her harrowing past and a threat to kill herself. Pyrrhus nevertheless remains adamant, and his behavior reveals a new aspect of his unmerciful passion. The suitor's posture he assumes is mere hypocrisy. There is nothing to prevent him from saving Astyanax even if Andromache makes no concessions. He prefers, however, to put Andromache in the position of arbitrating her own son's fate and to subject her to the agonizing choice of losing her son or betraying her dead husband.
Again, the essentially selfish and immature character of Pyrrhus' desire for Andromache is revealed, but this time with a new element added: Pyrrhus' impatience with the uncertainty in which he has been living is almost as strong as his passion. Toward the end of the scene, he seems almost indifferent to the choice Andromache makes; whatever she decides he will accept, provided only that it is final. In this respect, his reactions echo those of his rival Orestes in Scene 1.
Scenes 6 and 7 form an organic whole; the division is only technical, caused by the departure of Phoenix. As the conflict becomes sharper the language of both characters becomes more passionate, even frenzied. Pyrrhus talks brutally and punctuates his ultimatum with blunt antitheses:
You must perish or reign
And there you'll see me, obedient or furious,
Either crown you, or destroy him before your eyes.
The bitter note of Andromache's responses underlines the fact that this scene is literally a verbal "duel to the death."