Teaching the Odyssey and Rethinking Penelope

Teaching the Odyssey through Penelope and her Reception

      In the fifteenth century, Leonardo Bruni attacked the critics of poetry who claim that poems depict affairs and scandals (amores et flagitia) and so encourage this kind of behavior in their readers.  Bruni does not disagree with the theory that readers will imitate the behavior they see in poems; he instead thinks that many poems provide fitting examples for readers, and that it is not worth throwing out all poetry for the sake of the less common amores.  The valuable depictions outweigh the pernicious.  His first example of one such depiction, and a common example she has been, is Homer’s Penelope, the wife of Odysseus.

“Ego vero affirmare ausim in nullis scriptoribus tanta pudicitiae bonarumque rerum exempla reperiri, quanta in poetis: nam et Penelopae erga Ulyxem fidelissimam castitatem…”

“I would surely dare to affirm that so many examples of chastity and good deeds are found in no other writers as in the poets: the most-faithful chastity of Penelope towards Odysseus…”

This reading of Penelope, that which paints her as the eternally faithful and thus exemplary wife has been very popular; it is only relatively recently in interpretive history that readers have made serious attempts at a more nuanced, and less tendentiously moralizing view of Penelope’s actions.

  Any binary that forces Penelope to be the “eternally faithful wife” with the only alternative being the “disloyal adulteress” simply do not do justice to Homer’s portrayal of Penelope, and also fails to see the poem from Penelope’s perspective.  The following paper will suggest guidelines for a classroom exercise, one that integrates Homer’s Odyssey with receptions of the Odyssey in a fashion that helps young students understand the importance of the stories that get told about Penelope after Homer.  The purpose of this exercise is to help students arrive at their own opinion of Penelope’s motivations and actions, and to help them articulate them with evidence from the text and with reference to other receptions of it.   Another purpose is to encourage students to see the dramatic circumstances from Penelope’s perspective, instead of solely from Odysseus’ perspective.   Felson-Rubin calls this process “focalization”, and I believe with her that a full appreciation of Homer’s dramatic powers entails focalizing the same events in the poem from a number of different perspectives.

 Penelope, not Odysseus, is the locus of interpretation in this exercise.  

1:  Expose students to a few popular opinions about Penelope before exposure to the text itself.   Renaissance readings like the one above by Bruni are apt for this, as they voice ideas about Penelope that have long dominated the interpretive scene.  Indeed, before having read the Odyssey, one of the few things I had heard about it was about the virtuous, chaste Penelope character.  Boccaccio provides another example:

“Penelopes Ycari regis fuit et Ulixis strenuissimi viri coniunx: illibati decoris atque intemerate pudicitie matronic exemplum sanctissimum et eternum.”  

“Penelope, daughter of King Icarius, was the wife of the much-labored Odysseus: she is the most sacred and permanent example of pure virtue and unstained modesty.”

One of Ariosto’s most famous passages playfully suggests that Homer was warping the truth when depicting Penelope as faithful: “If you want the truth to be exposed, turn all of history upside down:  the Greeks were destroyed, Troy was victorious, and Penelope was a whore”.

  Servius details the alternative tradition in his commentary on the Aeneid:  Penelope begat the god Pan via intercourse with all of the suitors (hence the offspring’s name)! If Penelope is not the faithful, waiting wife, then she is a dissolute profligate.  Prevalent in all of these accounts is the notion that Penelope’s “virtue” hinges on her devotion to Odysseus, a husband who has been gone for twenty years.  Anything that deviates from this makes Penelope not virtuous, not heroic, and not worthy of emulation.   Penelope is heroic because she does remain unambiguously faithful to Odysseus.

2.  Explore the extent to which the text does not easily support this reading: 

Hinging Penelope’s heroism (kleos) on her chastity and faithfulness to long-gone Odysseus is pointedly misogynistic, and it focalizes Penelope’s actions from a male perspective.  In this scheme, the only chance that Penelope has for obtaining kleos is in Odysseus‘ homecoming.  It would be worthwhile to brief students on the general anxiety in antiquity that men felt towards women, and discuss a few other famous women in Greek literature  (The Odyssey can be used as a reference for Clytaemnestra and Helen).  At times, Penelope exhibits behavior that could indicate that she is not as unwaveringly dedicated to Odysseus as later readers have painted her, and these passages are of crucial importance.  Penelope provides a complicated interpretive problem for readers: we see actions but are given little clear, explicit insight into the motivational forces at play in Penelope’s mind.  There is thus much room for speculation with regard to what Penelope was thinking/intending during the following events, events which pose problems for the “waiting, chaste Penelope” reading:

  • Penelope decides to appear before the suitors, after giving a laugh that seems to indicate ambivalence and a potential conflict with respect to her attitude towards them (18.158-65).
  • Penelope relates a dream wherein an eagle comes down and slays twenty geese that she seems to hold dear to some degree (19.537-541).  The eagle then returns and explains that the eagle represents Odysseus, while the geese represent the suitors.  Odysseus in disguise as a beggar agrees with the eagle’s interpretation; Penelope expresses her disbelief in the strangers interpretation since she does not think that Odysseus is returning home.  
  • Penelope establishes the contest of the bow for the purpose, she says, of choosing a new husband (19.577-81, 21.75-79).

3.  Explore some strategies for interpreting those events, and encourage a sense of criticism about them.  Look at strategies used by characters within the poem itself, and by later readers.  Try to help students understand that strategies used by characters within the poem (i.e. Odysseus, Agamemnon) do not entail legitimacy.  

With respect to the first event (Penelope showing herself to the suitors), Odysseus himself witnesses the event but finds it unproblematic because “her mind had other intentions” (18.283), namely, to elicit gifts from the suitors.  Some will share Odysseus’ opinion that Penelope was not showing her interest in the suitors,  and maintain that Penelope is the ever-faithful wife that Odysseus assumes her to be.  It would be in Odysseus’ best interests if he was right about Penelope.   What, then, about Penelope’s strange, pointless (ἀχρεῖον) laugh that she has before going downstairs?  Reflect on the word ἀχρεῖον, if you have Greek students.  

 As an aside, I personally agree with Heitman, who rejects the view that Penelope’s ἀχρεῖον laugh reflects her shared understanding with Odysseus about the future.  Heitman’s own view, and it is a controversial one, is that Penelope’s laugh reflects her intellectual appreciation of the situation:  she hates the suitors but nevertheless has the desire to show herself to them.


As for the second event, Penelope’s dream has proven to be a source of extreme controversy.   The interpretation of the dream that implies Penelope’s affection for the suitors-as-swans does not lend itself to the “chaste” Penelope reading.  So Kurtz: “Surely Homer is not suggesting that Penelope seriously entertains a real affection for any of her suitors” (1989: 24) (cited by Katz 1991: 146).  The eagle from within the dream and Odysseus-as-beggar from without both affirm that the dream indicates Odysseus’ imminent homecoming.  Penelope does not believe the beggar’s interpretation of the dream, and she establishes the bow-contest for her next husband, convinced that Odysseus will not return.  These are not the words, actions, or attitudes of someone who clings relentlessly to the hope that Odysseus will return.  If the eagle and Odysseus are correct in their symbolic identification of the swans with the suitors, how do they explain for the evident affection that Penelope has for the swans?

With regard to the bow-contest, interpretations that hold that Penelope “knows” that the beggar is Odysseus and thus sets up the contest knowing that Odysseus is at hand ready to participate and win, are not easy readings to maintain.  The extent to which this reading has been upheld though, attests to how readers have traditionally wanted Penelope to be, not what she is in the poem.  If she knew the beggar was Odysseus when she established the bow contest, she would not have to test him so resolutely in Book 23.  It is no surprise that Odysseus is shocked by these further tests:  Penelope proves herself a point of misinterpretation, to Odysseus no less than to us.   Homer warns us against privileging the perspective of Odysseus by drawing attention to the limits of his understanding about his wife.  

4.  What other readings are possible besides Penelope as faithful wife or Penelope as disloyal adulteress?  If Penelope is not a heroine for the reasons that Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Renaissance readers claim, is she still heroic?  If so, how?  Make sure students can distinguish between their own notions of heroism and those they think are represented by the poem. 

Agamemnon gets a final opportunity to put his spin on things in book 24, where he attributes Penelope’s undying fame to her faithful remembrance of Odysseus.  The evidence above should force us to receive this statement with caution (24.192-98).  Do we expect Penelope to wait much longer than the twenty years that she already has for her lost husband?  Is this the only way Penelope can seem heroic in the Odyssey?  What about to the students?  Merkelbach’s interpretation (cited by Katz 1991: 100) is a good example of how an interpretation of Penelope can reveal much about one’s own views of female heroism: “Yet it is a great pity that this exemplar of a good wife did not remain faithful to her husband for at least one day longer; then her fame would have been assured forever…” (1969:5).  According to Penelope (although at least one scholar has called this a lie), Odysseus gave her the injunction when he departed that she ought to remarry as soon as Telemachus is of beard-growing age if he has not yet returned.  I of course assume with most readers that Penelope would prefer Odysseus to any of the suitors.  And is this not heroic, to remarry for the sake of one’s household and son despite a deep love for a missing spouse? 

It is easy to see how this discussion can feed into more general questions about the nature of heroism in the epics, specifically the sort of heroism appropriate to a wife or husband.  Why are our expectations of Odysseus, who has sex with Calypso and Circe en route home, so different from our expectations of Penelope?  This discussion will help enrich the text for those who have assumed with Agamemnon or Bruni that seem incapable of entertaining the possibility that Penelope intended to remarry, and further incapable of recognizing that this would be perfectly reasonable, if not heroic.  Agamemnon’s interpretation is of course conditioned by his own homecoming (he was slaughtered by his wife upon return), and Bruni’s reading strategies seem mostly to be in allegiance with his ideology and desire to locate viable fifteenth-century role models.  The Penelope they construct as a role model is not the Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey.  

If ancient Greek conceptions of female heroism dictate that Penelope ought to remain faithful to Odysseus indefinitely, then it may be worth raising the question: does Homer’s Odyssey go against this grain or with it?


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