Euripides, “Andromache” and Bitter Victory
It’s striking that in recent years America has become familiar with a major theme in Euripides: namely, the war that starts after victory is declared. I proposed this as the climate in which Hecuba takes place, but the same is even more evidentially true of Andromache. Here, via Donald Junkins’s translation, the Chorus tells us: “A victory which celebrates dishonor, stains the use of violence in behalf of justice, and creates hate. Malice makes no sense.” In this play, to the victors goes the malice.
We’ll remember Andromache from her three-hankie cameo in the Iliad; Hector, her beloved companion and great Trojan swordsman, had a date to be sliced and diced by Achilles, and she begged him to run away with her in an undeniably moving passage. Sadly though not moving enough for Hector, who dashed off to the battlefield and was struck down soon after. Whatever happened to Andromache?
One might think things couldn’t get much worse for Andromache, but this is Greek tragedy: things can always get worse. Taken as a slave by the Greek soldier Neoptolemus, she’s living ugly with the warrior, who has forced himself upon her giving her a son, and his new wife Hermione, who takes Andromache to be a wicked voluptuary instead of a helpless victim. Caught in a love triangle with two people she can’t stand, she learns that Hermione is planning to kill her with help from her father, the Spartan King Menelaus, who you’ll remember knows a thing or two about sexual jealousy, having launched the Trojan War over his wayward wife Helen.
Menelaus is depicted as a bit of a puffed-up jackass here and a secondary theme is the delusion of older military leaders who likely never saw any real combat. It’s interesting to compare him to Peleus, the grandfather of Neoptolemus, who emerges as a hero in the play. Age can and does convey wisdom in this play, but that train seems to have missed Menelaus’s stop. The Chorus suggests that, as military commanders are insulated from the results of their decisions, they never experience the fear and regret that produces real wisdom. Nevertheless, we should remember that Menelaus is arranging this murder for the sake of his daughter’s happiness.
Since we’ve noted in the past how Euripides challenges his Athenian audience, we should also note how he plays to their prejudices. Menelaus and Hermione are vengeful, cruel, and stupid; they’re also Spartans, and the dialogue often conveys that their character flaws are a Spartan birthright. Many scholars connect this to the year the play was written, roughly 426 BC, when anti-Spartan sentiment was in vogue. To a great extent, Euripides is telling his audience what they want to hear about their great rival.
But before we take him for an Athenian Toby Keith, let’s note that the play isn’t exactly pure boosterism; if Andromache is our hero she is being persecuted specifically as a slave and Oriental, details that must have cut close to the Athenian bone. Hermione’s slurs against people from the East- that they commit incest, cannibalism, and other perversions- are vulgar bigotries, and ironic after she marries her cousin. Her insane paranoia and anti-Eastern xenophobia also recall Athenian writing about Persians and barbarians. And, as a slave, Andromache is put in the terrible position of lacking free will, while being held accountable for her actions. Remember that the “democracy” in Athens rested on a large slave base. As in Medea and Hecuba, Euripides has us rooting, for an underdog outsider, here a female, alien, and slave.
As in much of literature, the corrupting nature of jealousy and vengeance are major themes here. In this case, however, vengeance and corruption are common currency in a time of merciless victory. Hermione’s vengeful behavior is right in line with the Greek victors who have legitimized revenge. As with many tragic characters, there’s a sense that she’s trying to shut off an infernal machine that threatens to pull her in; unlike most of them, she didn’t start the machine whirring. As the old liberal explanation has it, she’s a product of her society.
Hermione is also different from the average tragic character because she comes to her senses and her motivation changes accordingly. After Peleus helps Andromache and her son escape, Hermione switches from rage to panic- Neoptolemus will be furious and all of Pythia hates her. Unlike Medea, or even Hecuba for that matter, Hermione is able to step back at this point and change direction.
It also doesn’t hurt her that Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, and her loving cousin, pops in unexpectedly- Euripides loves a deus ex machina- to save her by orchestrating the murder of Neoptolemus. Someone has to die, after all, although it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed by the pick. The message seems to be that Neoptolemus brought a toxin into his home that finally poisoned him. Even more basic than vengeance- he’s fallen to that old tragic flaw of hubris. Victory can also be bitter.
If all of this is a bit hard to keep straight in summary form, it’s not much easier in the play. Andromache is convoluted enough to be a Philip Marlowe story. But the conclusion is more satisfying than in Hecuba or Medea. Once again, Euripides encourages us to root for a female, alien, slave outsider against civilization; here, however, our heroine is blameless; the vengeance and cruelty of the other characters, three of them united in the same doomed bloodline, has wreaked havoc that she was able to slip away from. As two bloodlines survive, we can begin to imagine the social order returning to normal after the machine has run out of its grisly fuel.