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24 december 2018
The first character we meet in Racine's Andromache is Orestes. (Well, Orestes and Pylades; they're like peanut butter and jelly.) Orestes is a major figure in Greek legend, mostly as a guy stuff just happens to. ("My whole life has been wrecked by undeserved / Misfortunes," he wails at one point . His girlfriend will later remark "You're bent on whining" .) Orestes isn't known for independent feats; he's basically reactive. He kills his mother, for instance, which is pretty awful, but only because she started it by killing his father. He runs away from home after this, but only because he's harassed by the Furies. That all works out, but in Andromache, Orestes is once again on the move – at the behest of the Greek allies from the Trojan War. He has come to Epirus to winkle the Trojan prince Astyanax out of the keeping of Pyrrhus, who protects the lad for love of his mother Andromache, who hates Pyrrhus because his father killed her husband. To complete the picture, Orestes is in love with his first cousin Hermione, who is in love with Pyrrhus.
This jackstraw-piled neoclassical plot doesn't look like it can be resolved in any direction. Nobody can be with the one they love, and everybody's adamant about not loving the one they're with. Ultimately, like any pile of jackstraws, the whole thing crashes. But it's hair-raising while it lasts.
The middle of the play, as Joseph Harris observes in his Penguin introduction, verges on comedy. In the final scene of Act 2, Pyrrhus pulls himself together and resolves to reject Andromache and her pleas for her son. His confidant Phoenix congratulates him. Time to marry Hermione as planned, he suggests. Then Pyrrhus asks "If I marry her, / Andromache will be jealous, don't you think?" (168) It's exactly what a character out of Molière might say at such a juncture. It would be quite goofy if it weren't so incipiently sanguinary.
Finally in Act 4, the characters decide on courses of action. Pyrrhus proposes to Andromache. If she doesn't accept, he will kill her son, so of course she accepts. But she resolves to stab herself as soon as they're married. Hermione, meanwhile, decides to attend the wedding, stab Pyrrhus, and then stab herself. Orestes offers to stab Pyrrhus for her. She's tempted, but decides "My stabs would be more meaningful than his" (188). Fun group of people.
But things don't turn out quite the way the stabbers have them planned. Orestes leads a group of bloodthirsty Greeks to have it out with Pyrrhus. Naturally, they grab Pyrrhus and start stabbing him without letting Orestes have a go. When Orestes tells Hermione the supposedly good news, he figures she'll be angry because Orestes didn't do the stabbing. Instead she berates him for arranging the stabbing in the first place, and runs off to stab herself.
Andromache, thinking better of stabbing herself, is suddenly a virtuous widow succored by numerous Myrmidons. Unlike most eponymous tragic heroines, she basically wins her own play. On the way out of Dodge, Orestes is revisited by the Furies. (You'd think, given his family history, that he wouldn't have been so eager to give in to a woman browbeating him to stab a king, but in addition to being chronically passive, Racine's Orestes is also an idiot.) The play ends with Orestes in a swoon and Pylades once again taking charge of the situation and hustling him offstage.
Andromache is agreeably over-the-top, and John Edmunds' translation gives a good sense of its extreme features.
Racine, Jean. Andromache. 1667. Translated by John Edmunds. In Four French Plays. London: Penguin, 2013. 137-199.