Orestes, son of Agamemnon, has just discovered his friend Pylades at the court of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles and king of Epirus. Pylades feared that the storm which separated their ships near Epirus six months before had brought Orestes the death he had always sought. He is overjoyed and asks what has brought Orestes and his Greek embassy to Epirus. Orestes says he has come for love, and Pylades is surprised. He had thought that after the princess Hermione had refused him at Sparta, Orestes had forgotten his passion for the daughter of Helen of Troy. Hermione has been betrothed to Pyrrhus and is now in Epirus waiting to marry him.
Orestes agrees that he thought he had torn Hermione from his heart, and he had gone to join a conference of Greek princes in the hope of war and fame. However, the conference was discussing Pyrrhus and was angry with him for two reasons: He was protecting Astyanax, son of Hector of Troy and his wife Andromache, whom the Greeks thought they had killed at the fall of Troy; in addition, he was delaying his marriage to Hermione because he was in love with someone else. The conference chose Orestes as its ambassador to Pyrrhus, and Orestes now asks Pylades what Hermione’s reaction to Pyrrhus’ neglect has been.
Pylades says that Pyrrhus is, in fact, in love with his slave and former enemy Andromache, who persistently refuses him; angered, he pays court first to Hermione, then to Andromache. Hermione herself appears outwardly scornful of this infidelity, but in fact is much troubled at it and sometimes even wishes that Orestes would come and rescue her from this situation. Orestes’ best plan is to peremptorily demand the surrender of Astyanax. Pyrrhus, incensed, will then refuse, and the separation between Pyrrhus and Hermione, who loves him, will widen.
After examining Phaedra, we inevitably encounter an impression of familiarity in Andromache. Every author, even Shakespeare, has his own distinctive style. Thus in Andromache, as well as in Phaedra, love dominates the play, a love of a similar nature, imperious, uncontrollable, irrational, a disastrous emotion that leads to tragedy.
The literary formula is also familiar. Once again the curtain rises on a situation that is close to its climax. This necessitates a fairly lengthy exposition, deftly handled by the author in the first scene.
However Andromache (which incidentally was written before Phaedra) is emphatically not a variation on a theme. Subtle but significant differences distinguish it from Phaedra. Instead of a simple composition wherein the attention is focused on the protagonist and even prominent characters like Hippolytus are subordinated to the principal female role, that of Phaedra, Andromache presents a complex arrangement. The play suggests a dramatic dance, a quadrille in which each of the partners alternately leads the dance and forces the others to take a step. Orestes’ mission compels Pyrrhus to make a decision about Andromache. She, in turn, will make a decision which will affect Hermione, who will then act and involve Orestes in her action.
The actions in Andromache are entirely psychologically motivated. In Phaedra, Racine removes and reintroduces Theseus as the plot requires. In Andromache, Orestes’ embassy, which constitutes a similar external stimulus to the action, reveals itself on close examination to be of a different nature. Orestes’ appearance in Epirus does not have the arbitrariness of Theseus’ entrance into Athens. It is a predictable consequence of Pyrrhus’ protection of Astyanax, son of Hector. It was quite plausible for the Greeks to send an embassy to deal with this potential threat to their safety. Orestes’ place in that embassy is even less of an accident. He has taken it with the express intention of seeing Hermione again.
The poetic background, as compelling as the mythology in Phaedra, is, however, quite distinct in tone. In the latter play Racine adds depth and universality to an individual tragedy by working within Giraudoux’s formula of the real within the unreal, enriching Phaedra’s psychological struggle by allusions to the legendary world of the gods. In Andromache, he uses the Trojan War as background, but not only to add breadth and historic intensity to his psychological drama. The Trojan War here has the dreadful immediacy of any war, and the emotional struggle between Andromache and Pyrrhus is the prolongation of a war to the death between two races.