Hermione is, like Pyrrhus — violent, egocentric, and callous. She is completely insensitive to the feelings of others; her reception of Andromache’s plea for her son is deliberately cruel, and her psychic world is completely centered upon her love-hate relationship with Pyrrhus.
Nevertheless, she commands more of our sympathy than he, for two reasons: because she is a woman in a peculiarly humiliating position and because she is young. Untormented, she might be kinder to others; maturity might give her a juster perspective on herself and her world.
Characters were being shaped by their home environment, and poets were observing this fact, long before Freud. Racine makes few comments on his characters’ backgrounds, assuming that his educated audience would already be familiar with it, but Pyrrhus is obviously the son of Achilles, and Orestes is someone who, to use the modern circumlocution, “had an unhappy family background.” Similarly, toward the end of the play, Racine illuminates Hermione’s character in terms of her mother. Crying, “What? My mother had the whole of Greece in arms . . . without even asking, while I . . . even by offering myself to a lover, cannot avenge myself?” Hermione reveals how much of her own life has been shaped by her desire to compete with a beautiful, famous, and irresistible mother. Her adolescent passion for Pyrrhus was also an attempt to capture a trophy worthy to rival her mother’s conquests, and much of her violence in the play is due to the fact that, once again, at the most critical moment of her life, she finds herself taking second place to a beautiful and famous older woman.