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Penelope – The ‘Good Wife’

October 13, 2013

Agamemnon praises Penelope on two occasions in the Odyssey and appears to exempt her from his declarations against all women (Homer Odyssey 11.433-4). Agamemnon refers to her as ‘prudent and of an understanding heart’ stating that ‘the fame of her virtue shall never perish, but the immortals shall make among men on earth a pleasant song in honour of constant Penelope.’ (Homer Odyssey 11.445 and 24.196-8). However, there is more to Penelope’s character than these qualities as she demonstrates intelligence, cunning and control.

Intelligence

Penelope’s intelligence is demonstrated throughout the Odyssey, though the decision to hold the bow competition for her hand in marriage is a particularly key moment. Penelope suggests the competition whilst talking with Odysseus disguised as a beggar (Homer Odyssey 19.570-6). Penelope is aware that the challenge to string the bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axes is difficult; though it is a feet achieved by Odysseus. Winkler (1990:154) believes that Penelope on some level is aware that the beggar is Odysseus and her decision to hold the contest provides him the opportunity to kill the suitors. Pomeroy (1994:29) considers an alternative view that Penelope announces the contest in order to protect Telemakhos. On the one hand, Pomeroy’s argument requires due consideration particularly given Penelope’s reaction on her return to her rooms as she ‘bewailed Odysseus’ (Homer Odyssey 603). On the other hand, Homer does not make it clear whether Penelope is upset for the loss of her husband or because the beggar reminds her of Odysseus. The passage is very much open to interpretation. Winkler (1990:150) concludes that Penelope’s suspicion that the man she is interviewing is Odysseus comes through in the way she questions him. It is noteworthy that without some form of realisation on Penelope’s part the suggestion for the contest using Odysseus’ bow might seem somewhat out of place. Penelope needs to have some confidence that Odysseus will arrive and win the competition.

Winkler (1990:146) suggests that Penelope further demonstrates intelligence in the ability to control and use the suitors as she, ‘drew from them gifts, and beguiled their souls with gentle words’ (Homer Odyssey 282-3). The resources of Odysseus and Penelope’s household had been depleted during the time the suitors had been resident. Winkler (1990:147) suggests that Homer ensures Penelope ‘seduces [but is] not blameable for any seduction, since she is acting in the interest of her household’. Lefkowitz (2007:124) similarly argues that Penelope uses her intelligence to stay faithful to Odysseus. However, Blundell (1995:55) suggests that the representation of Penelope gives her a ‘shady and ambiguous character’ that is comparable with Helen. Blundell’s view of Penelope does not fit with Homer’s characterisation of Penelope who uses her intelligence to protect Odysseus’ home, Telemakhos and herself. One example of Penelope’s protective nature is her attempt to stop the suitor’s plots against her son. Penelope continues to treat Telemakhos as if he were a child in order to demonstrate that he is no threat to the suitors (Homer Odyssey 18.215-225) but instead he retorts with the voice of a man (Homer Odyssey 18.226-243). In order to address this Penelope demonstrates quick wittedness creating an imaginary conversation Odysseus had with her before leaving, ‘when thou shalt see my son a bearded man, wed whom thou wilt, and leave thy house’ (Homer Odyssey 18.269-70). This action ensures that Penelope fulfils the obligation to protect Telemakhos and Odysseus’ house. This it might be argued is not the action of a woman with an ambiguous character but instead a sign of intelligence and cunning.

Cunning

It is difficult to distinguish between Penelope’s intelligence and cunning, as they are somewhat intertwined. The most appropriate example of this is the weaving plot. Penelope claims to the suitors that she cannot make a decision on who to marry until she has weaved her father in laws death shroud (Homer Odyssey 2.96-102). However, by night she would unwind it. This ruse lasted for three years until one of her maidservants reveals the secret to the suitors. Winkler (1990:141) comments that Penelope uses deception through weaving in order to have the appearance of a good wife. Similarly, Blundell (1995:55) believes Penelope ‘emerges as a clever and determined woman’ from this deception, ‘who is quite capable of evading the pressures placed on her’. Through use of her intelligence and a deception Penelope protected herself from the suitor’s advances, enabling her to continue to look after the household and child which are her primary interest.

There is a further demonstration of Penelope’s cunning through her trick to confirm Odysseus’ identity. Only Penelope, Odysseus and one servant were aware that their bed could not be moved as it had been partly carved from a tree (Homer Odyssey 23.181-204). This trick is a key moment in the work as although other characters accept Odysseus without question Penelope is much more cautious. Winkler (1990:158-9) argues that although Penelope has a sense that this is Odysseus, she has to test him to be sure as he may have been a well-informed imposter. Throughout the work both Odysseus and Penelope use trickery on a number of occasions. Their similar approach demonstrates that they are suited to each other or as Winkler (1990:161) puts it ‘the best wife for the best husband’.

Control

Winkler (1990:137) describes Penelope as being Ekhephrôn (mentally restrained). Penelope and Odysseus both have restraint in the information provided in conversations, their suspicion of others and ensuring they have their wits about them. This is demonstrated particularly well within the exchange between Odysseus and Penelope in book nineteen, Winkler (1990:150) considers there is a certain caution exhibited by both as they are aware that the servants around them may be listening and could report the conversation to the suitors. Furthermore, Penelope has the ability to take command of the conversation itself clearly defining that she is in charge through asking questions and stating she will put Odysseus to the test; she is suspicious of the stranger and needs reassurances (Homer Odyssey 19.104-216) (Winkler 1990:151).

Concluding the examination of Penelope Winkler (1990:161) suggests that at the end of the Odyssey the author has succeeded in conveying that men and women have some degree of equality. However, Blundell (1990:56) instead sees Penelope’s reluctance to identify her husband as an indication of the need at this point to renegotiate roles. Homer through Odysseus delivering the household from the suitors reasserts the authority of the king as head of the household. It is clear here that Penelope’s questioning of Odysseus is the final stage of the transference of control back to him.

Conclusion

Agamemnon’s praise of Penelope falls short of what she actually deserves (Homer Odyssey 11.445 and 24.196-8). Penelope is a ‘good wife’ but her character is developed further. Penelope is able to take advantage of a situation and use the resources at her disposal in order to defend her family (demonstrated by the plots she is involved in). I certainly agree with Winkler’s (1990:142) view that Penelope is the equal of Odysseus and not ‘a pawn in the games of male characters’. The positive assessment of Penelope’s intelligence, cunning and control is warranted though at times the text is too ambiguous to draw any firm conclusions.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Homer The Odyssey Translated by A.T. Murray, London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1919.

Secondary Sources

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient GreeceCambridge: HarvardUniversity Press, 1995.

Lefkowitz, M. Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 2007.

Pomeroy, S. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves Women in Classical Antiquity London: Pimlico, 1994.

Winkler, J. The Constraints of Desire London:Routledge 1990.

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From → Women in Myth

2 Comments
  1. thanks that really helped

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