Euripides’ Andromache

Euripides’ play Andromache dramatizes the plight of Hector’s wife years after the sack of Troy. Written in the middle of the Archidamian War (the first of the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta), the play is chiefly noteworthy for the harsh characterization of the Spartan king, Menelaus, and his family; as an admirer of the third of the great Greek Tragedians, I must say that I don’t really feel there is much “meat” in this particular Euripidean drama.

To briefly summarize the plot: Andromache, a suppliant at the temple of Thetis in the household of Peleus and Neoptolemus (the father and son of Achilles, respectively), dominates the first half of the play. She seeks protection at the shrine from her rival, the new wife of Neoptolemus, Hermione, and her father Menelaus. Both have come to kill her and her son. After tricking Andromache away from the shrine, both mother and son (the bastard of Neoptolemus), are threatened with death, saved only at the last minute by old Peleus. Menelaus exits without bloodshed, and Hermione promptly has a sudden change of heart, and attempts suicide after the departure of her father. She is saved by her servants, and then escorted away by her kinsman, Orestes, who has plotted the murder of her husband. Peleus, greatly saddened by this news, is then comforted by his divine wife, coming ex machina, and promised divinity and reunion with her and Achilles. The child of Neoptolemus and Andromache is to become the ancestor of a line of kings in northwestern Greece, Molossia.

The play, then, focuses on the plight of three different individuals: Andromache (and her son), Hermione, and Peleus (with the death of Neoptolemus at the hands of Orestes retold). Each one is saved, in some sense: Andromache is to become wedded to her dead husband’s brother, while her son will become a king in Greece. The unsteady Hermione finds a man who loves her, and Peleus is to be reunited with his divine wife and dead warrior son. This tripartite focus of the play has lowered the play’s reception among the critics over time.

In Andromache, Euripides gives the audience plenty of surprises: Andromache the “Asiatic” bears herself with dignity, Hermione and Menelaus the Greeks with murderous impiety; a woman (Hermione) spouts misogynistic nonsense, but is refuted in the virtues of another woman (Andromache); and a figure from a completely different myth declares his feelings for Hermione after having conspired to kill her husband in Delphi (of all places).

Euripides permits himself, and us, to see the tragedy of war. We see it through the eyes of Andromache, married to the slayer of her beloved husband and father, and we see it through the eyes of Peleus, who has lost his only son. Perhaps in choosing the Trojan war for his background, Euripides was intending to convey criticism of war when not dictated by the strong causes of necessity. This is a concern that (I suspect) will flower more particularly in later plays.

Aside from the above, the messages that Euripides apparently wished to convey can be summarised in the proverb-like words of two characters. Orestes says that it’s “no healthy state of affairs when one man has two women,” while Peleus questions the divine wisdom of Apollo, the vengeful slayer of Neoptolemus: “Like an unforgiving man he remembered a quarrel in the past [with Neoptolemus]. How then can he be wise?”

A question: might not the excuse Menelaus gives for his departure (“a certain city close to our borders, formerly an ally, has become our enemy; I have to go attend to it”) be a veiled threat rather than an excuse to get away?

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