Summary and Analysis
Act V: Scenes 4-5
Left alone, Orestes wonders what is to become of him: He has made himself a murderer for love of Hermione but, ungrateful, she now hates him.
Pylades comes in with some Greek soldiers and urges Orestes to flee to the ships. Obeying their new queen, Andromache, the people of Epirus are attacking the Greeks. Orestes says he cannot leave, he must follow Hermione; Pylades asks if he means to die with her. "Is she dead?" asks Orestes, and Pylades says that she has stabbed herself over Pyrrhus' dead body. Upon hearing the news, Orestes sees darkness surround him and feels rivers of blood about him. He thinks he sees Pyrrhus risen from the dead, kissing Hermione, who looks at Orestes with hatred. Pyaldes says he has gone mad, and he and the Greek soldiers take him away.
Like Oedipus, Orestes is confronted with the unsparing vision of his crime. He rejects the last weapon against despair, rationality. He knows the colossal irony of his act. He has sunk to the last stages of ignominy for nothing, for a promise that Hermione unconscionably repudiates. Rarely has a playwright conjured up such a mood of bleak despair.
The irony of his fate is further underlined by the fact that once again — and despite all his efforts to the contrary — he has done nothing to deserve it. He intended to kill Pyrrhus, but his weapon never actually touched his intended victim.
The introduction of Orestes' madness and his persecution by the Eumenides is in strict conformity with the legend. But Racine is obviously motivated by more than respect for tradition. He wants to sustain the mood and end the play on an authentically tragic note. The major features of tragedy are skillfully integrated and easily discernible.
Orestes' misfortune is not a fortuitous event. It has been engineered by a hostile fate and is thus elevated above a mere romantic imbroglio. Furthermore, the gods confer on him the dreadful distinction of making his suffering particularly harrowing, beyond calculation.
Orestes, in turn, reacts with a defiance, a kind of grandeur that lifts him above the common mortal. Instead of indulging in self-pity, he prepares to kill himself on the bodies of Pyrrhus and Hermione, to find in the physical unity of the three warring individuals a semblance of victory over a destiny which pitted them against one another.
A truer victory over fate is implicit in the triumph of Andromache, who has been recognized as a legitimate ruler and whose reign promises to endure. That too is characteristic of tragedy. For whatever the havoc wreaked in the play, the final vision is that of order, expressed originally in a pattern of death and rebirth in the ritualistic nature of primitive drama.
Racine, however, does not dwell on the reassuring element. The play ends on the harrowing note of Orestes' madness and its prospect of endless suffering.