So great is the difference between the Orestes of Greek tragedy and Racine’s Orestes that some students are quite disconcerted by it and cannot accept an Orestes who is the victim of an unhappy love affair rather than of a grim and deadly family feud.
In both plays, however, Orestes is a victim and his misfortunes drive him to insanity. Racine leaves some doubt in our minds, however, as to whether Orestes is really the victim of an overwhelming fate or whether he does not, to some extent, bring his own doom upon himself. His opening speech to Pylades may be read in two ways: as a frank recognition of the curse which lies upon him and as an exercise in self-pity. His reproaches to Hermione his tactless comments on her abandonment are understandable, but they are hardly calculated to further his suit. Orestes’ courtship reminds us somewhat of that of Alceste in Le Misanthrope.
His reversal of character from victim to aggressor in Act III is completely convincing and ennobles him in our eyes. His new projects may be criminal, but at least he is fighting against his fate rather than passively accepting it. The change, however, is not durable, and, significantly, Racine underlines the fact that Orestes’ weapon never actually touches Pyrrhus. His insanity in the last scene is caused not by the crimes he has committed, but by those he has failed to commit.