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Hector's Wife: Andromache in Vergil and Racine

Victoria Burmeister

PhD Candidate, Classical Studies, Boston University

Jean Racine opens both the first and second prefaces to his play Andromaque (1668) by quoting lines 3.301-332 of the Aeneid, where Aeneas happens upon Andromache at Buthrotum. Racine then writes: “here, in just a few verses, is the whole subject of this tragedy. Here is the location, the action which occurs therein, the four principal characters, and even their personalities….” (Racine, 36).  Despite his own assertion that Andromaque builds upon Vergil as a foundation, Racine’s play has most often been associated with Euripides’ Andromache, and scholarship lacks almost any insight regarding the connection between Racine and Vergil. Racine views Andromache as a woman whose whole identity centered around her husband, Hector, and their son, Astyanax. I argue that his tragedy is in actuality a meditation upon the psychological character of Andromache in Vergil's Aeneid, and that Andromaque acts as an exposition and an explanation of the events that lead up to Andromache's fate and characterization in Vergil's Aeneid.

            Although there is no existing investigation into Vergil's depiction of Andromache as the basis of that of Racine's tragic heroine, previous scholarship has shed light on Andromache’s character on an individual level within these separate works. In particular, Maurizio Bettini (1997) elucidates the “ghostly” qualities of Vergil’s Andromache in an analysis of her interactions with the Trojans. Similarly, M.J. Muratore’s analysis (1993) of Racine’s Andromaque conveys the general manner in which Andromache lives within the past to the degree that it alters her view of reality. Both articles draw attention to the way in which Andromache interacts with Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, in Aeneid III. Andromache refers to Ascanius as the sola imago (A.III.489) of her dead son, Astyanax; furthermore, practically the only questions she asks Aeneas concern the well-being of Ascanius; whether he grieves for his mother; whether he is inspired by his uncle Hector (339-342). Her whole worldview centers around her identity as Hector’s wife and Astyanax’s mother; therefore, all of her concerns come back to anything related to this identity. I argue that Racine helps the reader understand the psychological trauma behind Andromache’s mental state in the Aeneid. In the context of Racine, Andromache’s associations with Ascanius as the sola imago of Astyanax would no doubt trigger a traumatic association with the manner in which she failed to rescue her son from a violent death. Her failure effectively created the woman that Andromache is at Buthrotum; in this way, Racine retroactively provides the background which would inevitably lead to the traumatized “ghost” Aeneas meets in Vergil’s Aeneid.

            Although his tragedy is indeed a work of classical reception, Jean Racine’s Andromaque acts as a “prequel” to the scene in Vergil that he cites as his inspiration. He depicts Andromache as a new widow clinging to her duties as a mother and desperate to maintain her identity after her world has been both physically and figuratively destroyed. Racine provides a window into Andromache's turmoil after the death  of her husband and the destruction of Troy but before her ghostly existence with Helenus at Parva Troia in Aeneid III. Racine’s Andromache is a woman ready to sacrifice her life to keep her true identity, and ready to sacrifice her dignity to keep her son alive. Racine artfully uses Andromache’s devastation after the destruction of Troy as an “origin story” for the ghost-like figure whom Aeneas encounters amidst his journeys. Andromache in Vergil’s Aeneid is a woman beaten by war and stripped of her identity by circumstance. Jean Racine in his play Andromaque provides the complicated and tragic events that broke a strong, faithful, but desperate woman. 

Session/Panel Title

Gender and Reception

Session/Paper Number

72.1

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