Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scenes 2-4
Hermione's silence has alarmed her confidante Cleone, who fears the passions it conceals. Upon hearing the news of Pyrrhus' change of heart, Hermione has asked for Orestes, and now he appears. She demands to know if he loves her; if so, she will leave Epirus with him, but on one condition: that she does not depart scorned and unavenged. Orestes must kill Pyrrhus.
Orestes is horrified. He detests Pyrrhus, and is prepared to urge Greece to make war on him, but not to assassinate him. Such an act, while Orestes is ambassador at the court of Epirus, would be treachery; moreover, the divinity which hedges a king makes Pyrrhus' life sacred.
Hermione scorns his protests. Is it not enough, she asks, that Hermione condemns Pyrrhus? Does Orestes not realize that as long as Pyrrhus lives, Hermione, though she hates him now, may come to love him once more? Shaken, Orestes consents, but how, he asks, is he to carry out this crime? May he not have until nightfall to plan it? Hermione refuses: Pyrrhus must die before his marriage with Andromache is consummated — now, within the hour, at the temple where he is about to wed her. If Orestes does not agree, she will go personally to the temple and kill, first, Pyrrhus and then herself.
Orestes prefers to kill Pyrrhus himself and goes to carry out his task. Cleone protests that Hermione is destroying herself, but she is deaf to everything except her jealousy and her desire for revenge.
Scene 2 is an introduction to the violence which is to follow. The transition seems necessary to distract the audience's attention from Andromache and to direct their feelings toward the new phase of the tragedy. Without this briefing, the audience might not be properly receptive to the spectacle of Hermione's frenzy. A certain amount of anticipation enhances the spectacle.
It is indicative of Racine's perceptiveness that he does not put any long speeches in Hermione's mouth, that she remains disturbingly reticent. In moments of great stress words seem meaningless, and the mind retreats before the overwhelming presence of grief.
The fury implicit in Hermione's ominous silence is revealed in the following scene. Its virulence belies the notion of classical restraint. What identifies Hermione with her era is her lack of hysteria. She is dominated, but not blinded, by jealousy. She remains perfectly lucid about the means of revenge — that is, she uses Orestes as her tool. That she succeeds is a tribute to her cunning, for she is asking of Orestes an incredible action: the murder of a king by a guest. In Greek terms, in which hospitality and sacred loyalty were a man's first duty, this was the most heinous of crimes, and for seventeenth century France, which still held the doctrine of the divine right of kings, it was equally dreadful.
As we have already observed in relation to Phaedra, a period that chose Greek antiquity as its model could not have striven for moderation, at least not as an art form. While the control of reason over passion was a moral ideal, it was not an artistic rule. All the Greek tragedies and Aristotle's specific precepts made a mood of unbearable tension an essential ingredient of tragedy. Racine is obviously in sympathy with this goal. Hermione's disappointment is not commonplace. Only superlatives can describe her fury. It is demoniacal, frenzied, homicidal. Her thirst for revenge must be quenched immediately, at any cost.
As usual, Racine ends his scenes on a note of expectation. The suspense at the conclusion of Scene 4 is particularly dreadful. Hermione's order to recall Orestes indicates that her plan is ill-considered, conceived in a moment of passion. And we now wait with dreadful anticipation for her remorse. As we have said before, Racine's suspense is very distinctive. It is based not on our ignorance but on our knowledge of events.