In Homer's Odyssey, Penelópē is the faithful wife of Odysseus, who keeps her suitors at bay in his long absence and is eventually rejoined with him. Her name has traditionally been associated with faithfulness, and so it was with the Greeks and Romans, but some recent feminist readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation.
Penelope is the wife of the main character, the king of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman mythology), and daughter of Icarius and his wife Periboea. She only has one son by Odysseus, Telemachus, who was born just before Odysseus was called to fight in the Trojan War. She waits twenty years for the final return of her husband, during which she has a hard time snubbing marriage proposals from 108 odious suitors (including Agelaus, Amphinomus, Ctessippus, Demoptolemus, Elatus, Euryades, Eurymachus and Peisandros, (led by Antinous).
On Odysseus's return, disguised as an old beggar, he finds that Penelope has remained faithful. She has devised tricks to delay her suitors, one of which is to pretend to be weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus's elderly father Laertes and claiming that she will choose a suitor when she has finished. Every night for three years, she undoes part of the shroud, until some unfaithful maidens discover her chicanery and reveal it to the suitors.
Because of her efforts to put off remarriage, Penelope is often seen as a symbol of connubial fidelity. Although we are reminded several times of her fidelity, Penelope does begin to become restless , and longs to "display herself to her suitors, fan their hearts, inflame them more" .As Irene de Jong comments:
As so often, it is Athena who takes the initiative in giving the story a new direction . . . Usually the motives of mortal and god coincide, here they do not: Athena wants Penelope to fan the Suitor's desire for her and (thereby) make her more esteemed by her husband and son; Penelope has no real motive . . . she simply feels an unprecedented impulse to meet the men she so loathes . . . adding that she might take this opportunity to talk to Telemachus.
She is ambivalent, variously calling out for Artemis to kill her and, apparently, considering marrying one of the suitors. When the disguised Odysseus returns, she announces in her long interview with the disguised hero that whoever can string Odysseus's rigid bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe shafts may have her hand. "For the plot of the Odyssey, of course, her decision is the turning point, the move that makes possible the long-predicted triumph of the returning hero".
There is debate as to whether she is aware that Odysseus is behind the disguise. To Penelope and the suitors' knowledge, Odysseus would easily surpass all in any test of masculine skill. Since Odysseus seems to be the only person who can actually use the bow, it could merely have been another delaying tactic of Penelope's.
When the contest of the bow begins, none of the suitors is able to string the bow, but Odysseus does, and wins the contest. Having done so, he proceeds to slaughter the suitors- Antinous first who he finds drinking from Odysseus' cup - with help from Telemachus, Athena and two servants, Eumaeus the swineherd and Philoetius the cowherd. Odysseus has now revealed himself in all his glory, (with a little makeover by Athena) and it is standard for all to recognize him and be happy. Penelope, however, cannot believe that her husband has really returned—she fears that it is perhaps some god in disguise as Odysseus, as was the case in the story of Alcmene—and tests him by ordering her servant Euryclea to move the bed in their wedding-chamber. Odysseus protests that this cannot be done since he made the bed himself and knows that one of its legs is a living olive tree. Penelope finally accepts that he truly is her husband, a moment that highlights their homophrosyne .
In one story of the Epic Cycle, subsequent to Odysseus' death, Penelope marries his son by Circe, Telegonus, with whom she becomes the mother of Italus. Telemachus also marries Circe when Penelope and Telemachus bring Odysseus's body to Aeaea.