Andromache by Euripides is a jam-packed play that goes from Andromache under threat of murder to a fight between Peleus, Achilles’ father, and Menelaus, to Orestes stealing away Hermione, Neoptolemus’ wife, to Neoptolemus being murdered, to his son with Andromache being sent to Molossia where he will then continue the line of Troy and Achilles by producing a long and prosperous reign of kings. It’s really crazy just how much Euripides does in this play without it completely falling to pieces.
It’s been a number of years since the fall of Troy and Andromache, Hector’s wife, was awarded to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. They have a young son together. The play opens with Andromache as a suppliant in the temple of Thetis. Hermione, the legitimate wife of Neoptolemus, is barren and insisting that Andromache has cast a spell on her so she cannot bear children. Hermione is the daughter of Menelaus and Helen. Neoptolemus is away at Delphi, though expected back at any moment. In his absence, Menelaus has shown up and nominally taken charge of the household. He plots with Hermione to kill Andromache and her son who Andromache had hidden but Menelaus has found him. Andromache doesn’t know this at first and she thinks she just has to hold out until Neoptolemus gets back. Just in case though, she has sent for Peleus, Achilles’ father and Neoptolemus’ grandfather.
In the first part of the play we have Hermione in her rich queenly robes verbally sparing with Andromache, former princess of Troy, now dressed in slave’s clothes. There is a back and forth over who has the right to speak and who doesn’t. Hermione, being the wife, establishes as quickly as she can her right to speak freely and then launches into accusations against Andromache. Besides causing Hermione to be barren, Andromache is, according to Hermione, an opportunistic whore for having shared a bed with the son of the man who killed Andromache’s husband and bearing him a son.
Andromache, though a slave, refuses to keep her mouth shut. She did not willingly go to bed with Neoptolemus, as a slave she had no choice. She goes on to tell Hermione that it is not drugs and spells that keep Hermione from bearing children, but a husband who hates her — it is Helen’s fault Achilles is dead so by association, the son of Achilles hates the daughter of Helen. By the end of the long argument, Andromache clearly has the upper hand. At this time Menelaus arrives with Andromache’s son and joins the argument, telling her that he will spare her son if she leaves the altar of Thetis and allows him to kill her, Andromache.
Andromache puts up a good argument for her life and her son’s, so good that Menelaus, clearly at a loss, has to be saved by the chorus:
You are a woman talking to a man, and so you have said too much. You have lost sight of womanly modesty.
This allows Menelaus to spit out
Woman, this is petty business and unworthy of my regal power.
Which becomes a really interesting thing in light of Mary Beard’s recent lecture in the the public voice of women.
Menelaus tricks Andromache into leaving the altar with his promise to spare her son which he immediately takes back, saying he will not kill her son but Hermione will. At which point Andromache tosses out a nasty curse on Sparta.
There is an interesting political and racial dynamic in the play. Andromache is from Troy and therefore from the east. Hermione and Menelaus are Spartan. Neoptolemus is Greek. The play was produced sometime near the start of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. Andromache’s curse on Sparta would have been quite a rousing moment for the Athenians watching the play.
Peleus finally shows up and he and Menelaus have a good argument in which Peleus bests Menelaus and sends him packing back to Sparta with a really lame excuse in order to save face. Then the play gets weird. Hermione unprotected by her father is frantic because she is sure that when Neoptolemus arrives he will kill her for having plotted to kill Andromache and his only son. So Orestes shows up. Yup, that Orestes, son of Agamemnon, chased by the Furies for killing his mother in revenge for her killing his father. He is currently having trouble with the Furies but his troubles aren’t so bad that he can’t run off with Hermione. Apparently Hermione had originally been promised in marriage to Orestes. But because of Troy and Achilles’ great deeds Hermione was given to Neoptolemus instead.
Now in a reenactment of Paris stealing Helen while Menelaus is away, Orestes steals Hermione while Neoptolemus is away. But Orestes is going to get away with it because he also went to the trouble of getting Neoptolemus killed at Delphi by the people there who thought he was planning on sacking the temple thanks to slanders by Orestes. Off they go and finally, after almost an entire play of everyone waiting for Neoptolemus to get home, he arrives, only he is dead and shows up being carried on a bier. Peleus is bereft now that his son and grandson are both dead. Thetis, who was once married to Peleus and is mother of Achilles, swoops in and makes it all right.
What is this play of domestic dispute about? The repercussions of war played out on a smaller scale to be sure. But also household rights, who can speak and how, who has power and who doesn’t. And there is warning for the men of Athens watching the play: don’t keep your wife and your mistress under the same roof. There are several references to this in the play as well as many more comments about how women like to plot against each other. Sigh.
Hecuba and Trojan Women were such powerful plays with strong women that Andromache, in spite of some really good speeches, is a bit of a let down. Though I admit Orestes stealing Hermione is a nice Days of Our Lives touch. Even though Euripides manages to keep the plot more or less in line, the play just doesn’t come together with a unified emotional force.
I think I’ll take a break from Euripides for a month or two. Then maybe I’ll come back with Medea. Or perhaps I should save that one for last?