"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

23 November 2014

Andromache, by Euripides

Chorus: What help can it be
            To let distress waste and disfigure you
            Because those who command are cruel?
            Power will overtake you; you are nothing;
            Then why bring trouble on yourself?

Hermione: You orientals are all alike – incest between
            Father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son;
            And murder too – the closest family ties outraged,
            And no law to forbid any such crime! You can’t
            Import your foreign morals here. It’s a disgrace
            In Hellas for one man to be master of two women;
            Unless a man wants trouble at home, he must enjoy
            The pleasures of marriage with one wife, and be content.

Andromache: Are there no gods? Do you not fear divine justice?
Menelaus: We will endure that when it comes. I’ll kill you first.

Chorus: I would rather forgo the success which involves dishonor
            Than earn men’s hate by perverting right with force.
            For though tyranny tastes sweet for the moment,
            Yet of its freshness time takes toll,
            Till it lies yet one more burden on a disgraced house.
            The life I admire, the way that I would choose,
            Either in marriage or in ruling a city,
            Is to wield no power beyond what is just and fair.

Nurse: to go to extremes is always wrong.

EuripidesAndromache is an interesting play, which seems to be trying to take on too much subject matter. At various points Euripides deals with ageism, xenophobia, sexism, jealousy, slavery, justice, courage, militarism, and relationships. This wouldn’t inherently be a problem, but in the course of doing all this the play brings together three story lines that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, which makes this feel like a couple of different plays rather than one unified whole.

Broadly speaking, I would say the three storylines in this play are the Andromache plot, the Hermione plot, and the Orestes/Neoptolemus plot. Andromache opens, for maybe the first half, with the Andromache plot, then the Hermione plot is fairly quick (it might actually be more properly called an interlude), then the Orestes/Neoptolemus plot occupies most of the second half. The real problem is that the Andromache plot and the O/N plot aren’t connected other than through Neoptolemus being Andromache’s slave-owner and Peleus’ grandson. The Hermione plot does work as a bridge, but it isn’t clear why these two episodes fit into the same play. The Andromache plot focuses on the titular character’s attempts to avoid being killed by Hermione and Menelaus, and the O/N plot focuses on Orestes’ plot to murder Neoptolemus for marrying Hermione; these two plots are separated by Hermione’s (perhaps not entirely convincing) attempts at suicide after her plan to kill Andromache is foiled. Peleus and Hermione connect the two main plots vaguely, but the connection seems more incidental than essential. Andromache really dominates the first half of the play then just disappears, while Orestes becomes the driving force of the second half but doesn’t appear in the first half.

Menelaus and Hermione are an interesting pair in this play, and probably the main reason these Spartan characters come off so poorly is that Euripides’ Athens was on the losing end of the Peloponnesian War at the time this play was probably acted. The criticism of Spartans is really brutal here—the leaders are cowards who let others die for them, and the women are slutty and can’t be proper Hellenic wives. Menelaus comes across as a swaggering coward who feels he can kill his son-in-laws slaves without consequences from either Neoptolemus or the gods, but who runs away when the elderly Peleus arrives to defend Andromache and her son. Hermione is almost bipolar, moving from rage to suicidal despair, and clearly not fulfilling her role as a Greek wife by deferring to her husband (whatever we may think about that requirement today). Andromache, Peleus, and the chorus compare Hermione to Helen, her mother, comparing their disobedience and lustiness as negative character traits.

One other element I do find fascinating here is the whole series of intertexts, or references to other myths/plays throughout Andromache. Of course, Andromache itself picks up from The Trojan Women, which tells the story of the Greeks enslaving the women of defeated Troy, which also connects to Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem telling the story of the Trojan War. Peleus brings with him intertextual echoes of the Argonauts, an adventure in which he gained fame. And Orestes brings intertextual connections with AeschylusOresteia trilogy, and SophoclesElectra and Euripides’ Electra versions. These intertexts and references give us a really good sense of how interconnected these myths were, and how much Attic tragedy depends on audience familiarity. I mean, without knowing Orestes’ backstory, his troubles with finding a wife—which he discusses in Andromache—wouldn’t make that much sense. Here Euripides doesn’t give us enough info to piece together the Oresteia story, but he didn’t need to for an Athenian audience who could be counted on to be familiar with the story already.

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