Without too much material about this character to inherit and work with, Euripides fashions the play Andromache as “primarily a piece of anti-Spartan propaganda, written near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, but it is a real tragedy, not merely a political squib, thanks to Euripides’ unfailing sympathy for the oppressed and his passionate conviction that the war was not merely a quarrel between two cities but a clash between two ways of life” (Hadas 99).
Andromache, the widow of Hector, is at the altar of Thetis, bemoaning her lot: after the fall of Troy and the death of their son Astyanax (who was hurled from the battlements), she became the slave of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. She is now in Phthia and has given birth to a son, Molossus, whom she has sent elsewhere for his protection. Ever since Neoptolemus married Hermione of Sparta, Menelaus’ daughter, this Spartan woman has been harassing Andromache, accusing her of causing Hermione’s own barrenness. A Maidservant reports that Menelaus and Hermione want to kill the bastard son, and Andromache sends her to fetch Peleus, Neoptolemus’ grandfather, for help. The Maidservant asks how she will explain her absence from the house for so long. “You’ll think of a hundred schemes; you’re a woman” (10).
Andromache soliloquizes: “It is in the nature of woman, when sorrows surround her, to find joy in giving voice and tongue continually to her griefs…. Call no man happy till he is dead” (103). Or, “Never should a mortal be called happy until he has died and you have seen how he has passed through his final day before making the journey below” (11). This same (non-)sentiment can be found at the end of Oedipus and in the lyrics known as the “Epitaph of Seikilos.”
Andromache has a contentious discussion with Hermione, who accuses Andromache of causing her barrenness with drugs and being incestuous like all her people: “You foreigners are all the same” (12). Andromache can and will reply, first noting, “Those with influence in the world resent being worsted in argument by inferiors” (13). But, did Hermione honestly think that Andromache expects to take over the household, or that any children of hers could gain any status beyond slave? If her husband has neglected her it’s not due to any drugs but their own crappy relationship. She mentions that she accepted Hector’s bastards in the past — a claim that has no known source and seems quite odd to most scholars. Hermione says that Troy was cursed because of Achilles’ spilled blood; but Andromache says Helen was to blame (15). Hermione threatens to kill Andromache.
After the exchange, Andromache herself remarks,
It’s a strange thing that whereas there are antidotes, revealed to men by some god, against the venom of fierce serpents, nobody has yet discovered a remedy for a plague worse than fire or any viper — the plague of Woman. Such a curse our sex is to mankind. (108)
The Chorus reflects on the tragedy of Troy and the failure to listen to Cassandra calling for the murder of the baby Paris. Menelaus comes, full of himself and his “reputation, reputation” (17), threatening Andromache that if she does not leave the sanctuary of the temple and submit to her death then they’ll kill her kid. Andromache retorts,
Was it really you that led the flower of Greece to war and wrested Troy from Priam, was it really this poor specimen that is now cajoled by his childish daughter and, snorting with fury, enters into the lists with a helpless woman, a slave? You were not worthy of Troy, I tell you. (109)
Menelaus claims that “it is a greater thing for a man to attain the object of the moment than to capture Troy” (110). “Anything else that happens to a woman is secondary; when she loses her man she loses her life” (110). Although Andromache says his persecution is misplaced, since she was forced as a slave to sleep with his now son-in-law, Menelaus succeeds in tricking her away from the altar. Afterwards he immediately breaks his promise and declares that Hermione will decide the fate of Andromache’s son. Andromache, justifiably, rails:
O ye inhabitants of Sparta, the whole human race loathes you. Your counsels are full of treachery. Masters of the lie you are, ever planning wickedness. Your minds are crooked, hypocritical, always devious. Justice is thwarted by your successes in Greece. What crimes are not found among you? Where does murder thrive more? Or sordid greed? … (111)
Andromache is bound and her murder is prepared for, with Molossus present. But the kid’s great-grandfather, Peleus, who was Achilles’ father and husband of Thetis, arrives and commands Andromache’s release, holding his own in debate against Menelaus and mentioning, “You alone came back from Troy without even a sword-scratch. Your untarnished armor in its fair coverings returned with you as good as it went” (115). Beyond calling Menelaus a coward and swearing he’ll take Andromache away “once I’ve used this staff to give you a bloody head!” (24), he offers the unusual perspective that when Helen went “gallivanting” off with Paris, Menelaus should have written her off instead of starting the war. And he should have known she was no good: “No Spartan girl could keep her virtue…. [They go] baring their thighs in loose-fitting shifts” (24). Peleus also defends the kid: “Poor soil often yields a better crop than rich, let me tell you, and many a bastard is a better man than a true-born son” (25). Menelaus declares that the gods, not Helen, were to blame, and that, besides, the crummy soldiers gained skills in the war. He tries to erode Peleus’ defense of Andromache: “She had her share in the blood of your own son; for Paris, who slew your son Achilles, was the brother of Hector, and she is Hector’s wife” (116). (It seems a desperate stretch.) But Peleus insults him further: “The ordinary man is a thousand times cleverer” than generals, “he only lacks their effrontery and ambition” (117). Menelaus withdraws and Peleus reassures Andromache of her safety.
A Nurse reports that Hermione is suicidal, having realized that Neoptolemus will probably throw her out for attempting to kill Andromache and Molossus. Hermione indeed runs nearly mad with fretting, until Orestes shows up, to whom she had been promised as wife years ago. “What misfortune, except trouble with her husband, could befall a woman who has no children?” (121), he asks. She tells him she was plotting against Andromache and her son, but blames other women:
Perhaps you may ask how I came to make this mistake. Listening to bad women was my ruin…. I, listening to their siren words … became swollen with folly…. But never, let me say it again, never should men of sense who have a wife at home, allow other wives to visit her frequently. They teach mischief. One woman seeks to undermine her love for some private profit of her own. Another, faithless herself, wants a companion in wickedness. In many cases it may be merely prurience. There is the source of all infidelity in men’s homes. Therefore, guard your housedoors well, with bolts and bars. When other women get in, they do no good, and much mischief. (122)
Orestes has planned an ambush on Neoptolemus and runs off with Hermione. Peleus learns of this but is too late to prevent the cowardly slaughter of his unarmed, unarmored, grandson. The corpse is brought in and the Chorus drives home the notion that Peleus’ life is now pointless: “All for nothing did the gods bless you at your wedding” (40).
Deus ex machina! Thetis (Achilles’ goddess mother) appears, giving funeral commands and declaring that Andromache “must settle in the Molossian country … united with Helenus, (Hector’s brother,) in proper wedlock” (128-129). Thetis will deify Peleus, and the two of them will live together forever. The Chorus expresses awe at this divine intervention.
* * *
The play contains numerous interesting takes on old familiar material concerning the Trojan War and its key figures. Amid this is something of a thematic focus on women illogically victimizing each other while all under oppressive male idiocy and the overvaluing of breeding. Euripides is clearly critiquing this sociological phenomenon, not mindlessly capturing the ancient Greek value system, since although not only women in the play pronounce the worse condemnations of women, still the other offensive assumptions given voice come from the slimy Orestes (“What misfortune, except trouble with her husband, could befall a woman who has no children?”) or are applied to men too (e.g., Peleus having no purpose for living once his grandson is dead).
Euripides. Andromache. In Electra and Other Plays. Ed. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 1998. 2-41.
—. Andromache. Ten Plays. Trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean. NY: Bantam, 1981. 99-129.