All you need to know about the books you meant to read

ANDROMACHE (1667) by Jean Racine
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Plot: Pyrrhus, King of Epirus is betrothed to Hermione, daughter of Menelaus, but loves Andromache, widow of the Trojan hero Hector. Orestes, sent by the Greeks to kill Andromache's son, is in love with Hermione. Pyrrhus blackmails Andromache: either she marries him or her son Astyanax is handed over to Orestes for execution. Under pressure Andromache agrees to the marriage, but having secured her son's safety will kill herself. Hermione meanwhile learns of Pyrrhus's plans to marry and is beside herself with fury. She tells Orestes that she will be his if he murders Pyrrhus. This he does, then returns to Hermione expecting gratitude. Instead she rebuffs him and kills herself over Pyrrhus's corpse. Orestes goes mad. Andromache, now queen of Epirus is transformed from victim to victrix.

Theme: Love is an all consuming amoral emotion that is both destructive and self-destructive. Love cuts across all gentler impulses and noble ideals, leaving them scarred and maimed.

Style: Racine uses 12- syllable rhyming couplets with a restricted vocabulary of 4000 words (Shakespeare uses 25,000).

Chief Strengths: There are no villains and yet each character must bear some weight for the tragic denouement. As the action accelerates, Racine maintains a universal sympathy while remaining icily impersonal.

Chief weakness: For the Francophobe, the language can seem too starchy to be expressive, and the plot too didactically tidy to be tragic.

What they thought of it then: The play was a brilliant success. Racine's racy drama of driven sexuality made Corneille's ponderous plays of duty and patriotism seem dated and jejune.

What we think of it now: Along with Phedre, it is one of Racine's greatest works, although British actors, trained to mouth Shakespeare, are inclined to turn the long rhetorical speeches in rant.

Responsible for: Craig Raine's 1953 which relocates the play's action to a post Second War Europe here the Axis powers have been triumphant.