Orestes arrives to report that Pyrrhus is dead at the altar. As Pyrrhus placed the crown on Andromache’s head and swore friendship and fatherhood to Astyanax, recognizing him as legitimate King of Troy, the affronted Greek embassy fell upon him so furiously that Orestes himself found no opportunity to strike a blow.
“What have they done?” cries Hermione, and Orestes apologizes that her vengeance has been carried out by the other Greeks rather than by him personally. But Hermione tells him to be quiet — the sight of him horrifies her. He has slain the man she loves; why? who told him to?
“You yourself,” replies Orestes. But Hermione upbraids him for obeying a woman mad with jealously. Rather, he should have understood her true feelings, asked her a hundred times if she meant it before he obeyed her. His embassy has been a fatal one, influencing Pyrrhus to choose Andromache; except for Orestes, Pyrrhus might still be wavering between Andromache and Hermione, might even be loving Hermione or pretending to. She bids Orestes farewell, saying she is renouncing Greece and her family forever.
This scene begins the denouement of the play. It is the crucial moment that settles the fate of all the major characters. Pyrrhus dies, Andromache reigns, and Hermione and Orestes are morally destroyed by their crime. It is actually two separate scenes. The first part is the story of Pyrrhus’ death and the second of Hermione’s curse of Orestes. The device of using narration to explain Pyrrhus’s death can be explained historically. Bienseance (decorum) dictated that the direct portrayal of violent scenes be eliminated from the stage. But as usual, Racine makes a virtue of necessity and gives to the report an impact as strong as direct presentation. In fact, it may even be more effective. It is unlikely that acting alone, weakened by the distance of the stage, could convey such superb defiance.
The horror created by the Greeks’ lust for blood is surpassed by Hermione’s horrified reaction to Orestes’ announcement. For the attentive spectator, her reaction is predictable, since it follows logically from her persistent love for Pyrrhus and her equally persistent aversion to Orestes. Nevertheless, Racine surprises us. The normal reaction would have been sorrow and remorse. Instead, with terrifying injustice, Hermione thrusts the whole guilt on Orestes. She disclaims all responsibility and anathematizes him, leaving him with the unbearable awareness of the futility of his crime.
Of the two effects recommended by Aristotle, pity and horror, it is the latter that is overwhelmingly emphasized. But the pity has not been completely sacrificed; the effect of pity is not only an Aristotelian rule; it follows also, and more important, from the need for authenticity. The playwright, especially in the seventeenth century, sought universality, a character valid for all times and places. That character is a mixture of good and evil and so, in spite of his failings, worthy of at least a modicum of pity.
Hermione and Orestes are guilty, at least in intent, of premeditated murder. But Orestes has the saving grace of struggling with his conscience before succumbing to his crime, and Hermione reacted to unbearable provocation. Thus, in spite of the foulness of the couple’s behavior, the sensitive spectator cannot help thinking that, given the same circumstances, he too might have fallen.