Penelope, long-suffering spouse of Odysseus, is to us the ultimate paradigm of wifeliness. Even within our modern society, her name remains a byword for patience, loyalty, and stoicism. Waving goodbye to her husband as he set sail for war, she would not see him again for twenty years. During this time, we are told, she remains the model of forbearance and fidelity (unlike the man she awaits). With no word of her husband for twenty years, this is admittedly impressive.

What do we know of Penelope beyond her unrivalled, unhuman patience? “This is the great difficulty - finding Penelope among [the] praise heaped upon her by men. Are they describing her or merely describing their idealized version of what a wife should be?” (Haynes, 2020:283). Has Penelope unwillingly become a conduit for thousands of years of domestic male fantasy? Faithfully awaiting a faithless husband, keeping the home fires burning to warm him upon his

And yet, as always, there is more to this cardboard cutout of idealised femininity than meets the eye. During the years Odysseus is away fighting, Penelope is forging a battle of her own. As his absence lengthens, so does her home begin to fill with men wishing to take his place.

In an effort to stall these dreaded suitors, Penelope crafts and enacts an ingenious scheme to delay her seemingly inevitable remarriage. She promises the men who fill her palace that once she has completed the shroud she is weaving for her father in law, Laertes, she will succumb to their demands. She is seemingly dedicated to this task- weaving all day for years on end. What these unobservant suitors do not realise, preoccupied as they are with eating and drinking their prospective wife out of house and home, is that her weaving extends into the night. Her hours of darkness are spent painstakingly unweaving her day’s work, so that each morning she returns to square one, buying another day of freedom.

Like Clytemnestra, the antithesis of Penelope in almost every other way, Penelope uses the innocent and feminised reputation of weaving to her advantage, entrapping those who underestimate her in her threads of cunning. Ultimately, this strategy is what ensures her freedom. She is her own hero, saving herself for a husband who, unbeknownst to her, shares a bed with almost every nymph, witch and mortal he encounters on his long journey home.

As we have gathered, Penelope’s unrivalled devotion and loyalty are pretty well known. What is less commonly considered is her immense intelligence, cunning and bravery in a world where women rarely held the keys to their own fate. In this light, Penelope the passive become Penelope the punchy. We begin to question this alternate side of her character, to ask, who is the woman beyond the unwavering patience? And to marvel at her agency.

What we want to know is,
Who is Penelope today?

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