No ordinary surprise awaited the audience assembled at the Bourgogne when Racine's Andromaque made its appearance. In addition to being a tragedy of the order so long desired in vain, it was to them what the Cid had been to their progenitors in the days of Richelieu, the sudden revelation of a genius previously unsuspected. In framing his plot, Racine deviated very widely from the legend of the captivity of Hector's widow and son at the palace of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Three distinct and conflicting interests are brought into play. Andromache is loved by Pyrrhus, Pyrrhus by Hermione, and Hermione by Orestes. It is only by becoming the wife of her tyrant that Andromache can save her son from being delivered up to the vindictive Greeks.; a deep-seated reverence for the memory of Hector struggles with the impulses of maternal affection, and at length, with a determination not to survive the marriage ceremony, she consents to the sacrifice required at her hands. Betrothed to Pyrrhus, whom she has left Greece to wed, Hermione, stung to madness by her humiliation, causes him to be assassinated on the altar steps just after the safety of Astyanax is assured, the chosen instrument of her vengeance being Orestes. But a fierce revulsion of feelings sweeps through her mind as the latter tells her of the crime she has urged him to perpetrate. Far from giving him the expected reward of his devotion, she assails him with bitter invective, falls into an agony of remorse and destroys herself on the bier of her victim. Stunned by the discovery that he has lost his honor to no purpose, Orestes is hurried by Pylades and other friends beyond reach of the punishment with which he is threatened. In elaborating this impressive story, so different from the one related in the Greek play, Racine manifested the power required to do it justice. Blemishes in the work there unquestionably were; yet, viewed as a whole, it left no doubt that, in the field opened to him by Quinault and Molière, he would reign supreme unless another Euripides should arise.
In the third act Andromache pleads with Hermione for the life of her son; but Hermione answers her scornfully:
I understand your grief; but my father has spoken, and it is my stern duty to be silent. It is he who moves Pyrrhus to anger; but who can plead with Pyrrhus like yourself? Your eyes have long swayed him. Gain him to your side, and I will lend my voice.
As Hermione sweeps away, Pyrrhus and his counsellor Phoenix enter, and the unhappy mother hears the counsellor say:
PHOENIX: Let us give up Hector's son to the Greeks.
ANDROMACHE: (Throwing herself at Pyrrhus' feet.) Ah, prince, pause! What will you do? If you give up the boy, give them his mother also. You who have sworn so much love for me, O Heaven, can I not touch your pity? Am I condemned without hope?
PYRRHUS: Phoenix will tell you; my word is pledged.
ANDROMACHE: You who would have braved for me so many perils!
PYRRHUS: I was blind...