Pyrrhus arrives to make what apology he can to the princess he is abandoning. Despite the fact that their fathers arranged their marriage without love on either side, he says, he had every intention of keeping his promise to wed her. But his love of Andromache has proved too strong; he is marrying the Trojan slave; and Hermione cannot despise his infidelity more than he does.
Ironically, Hermione replies that the apology matches the affront, and she taunts Pyrrhus with his inconstancy and his contempt for his sworn oaths. Naturally he expects her to forgive him. He has killed so many people: Hector’s old father, the young girl Polyxena: Who can refuse anything to such a hero?
Pyrrhus says he is pleased to discover that she is so indifferent to his action and that she, in fact, never loved him. Hermione bursts out, “I not love you? What did I feel, then?” For him she refused many other princes; out of love she endured his infidelities — even now, when he has so cruelly abandoned her, she may love him still. If he has any feeling for her, he will put off his wedding to Andromache, even for a day. But she sees he is impatient to rejoin his bride-to-be. He may go to the altar to profane his sacred oath to Hermione, but he should be careful: Even there, Hermione may stand in his way.
Phoenix warns Pyrrhus to take care, Hermione may take revenge. But Pyrrhus thinks only of rejoining Andromache.
The interview between Hermione and Pyrrhus may not be absolutely essential to the plot. Unless Pyrrhus were a supreme diplomat, he could not now change Hermione’s emotions. The scene, therefore, is not important to the course of events. It does satisfy, however, a legitimate curiosity. The audience knows that the interview must take place. Only a brute discards his fiancee without a word of explanation. Hence we want to know how Pyrrhus handles his repudiation and how Hermione reacts to it.
The scene holds no surprises. There is no melodramatic reversal. Classicism believes in the logic, in the consistency, of passions. Pyrrhus maintains his indifference. Far from attempting to assuage Hermione’s humiliation, he callously admits his lack of love. And yet there is perhaps an element of courtesy in the face-saving construction he puts on their past betrothal and an element of truth in his statement that he reproaches himself even more than she. Under the shadow of death, Pyrrhus seems to have gained more appreciation of the outrageous nature of what he is doing.
Hermione reacts with the predictable bitterness of a woman not only rejected but insulted. With a viper’s tongue, she accuses Pyrrhus of perfidy and scorns the exploits which she had previously admired. She is possessed by that excess of passion that makes her lose her self-control and confess more than her dignity would normally allow.
Racine’s ability to obtain powerful effects from simple means is admirably illustrated in this scene. Elsewhere, he has injected a world of meaning in just one word. Here, he makes even silence expressive. Pyrrhus’ refusal to answer Hermione’s request that he postpone his wedding is a mortal insult.
The end of the scene returns the action to the main theme, the prospective assassination of Pyrrhus. For the classical writer, unity of action might very well have been the primary consideration. For one thing, Aristotle makes it the distinguishing element of tragedy. For another, it is the one unity that is not the arbitrary dictum of a particular era but a legitimate aesthetic principle.