Some critics dismiss Penelope as a paragon of marital fidelity — a serious and industrious character, a devoted wife and mother, but one who lacks the fascination and zest for life that some of Homer's immortal women display. However, Penelope is not a pasteboard figure. She is a complicated woman with a wry sense of destiny who weaves her plots as deftly as she weaves a garment.
Penelope is in a very dangerous situation when the suitors begin invading her house and asking — and then demanding — her hand in marriage. Although the suitors abuse an important social tradition of hospitality, Penelope lacks the natural, social, and familial protections that would enable her to remove them from her house. Her son, Telemachus, has neither the maturity nor the strength to expel the invaders. Although unassuming, Penelope has a cunning that indicates she is a good mate for her wily husband. Antinous complains of it at the assembly in Book 2. He claims — rightly, by the way — that she has misguided the suitors for nearly four years, leading on each man with hints and promises but choosing no one.
The story of the loom symbolizes the queen's clever tactics. For three years, Penelope worked at weaving a shroud for the eventual funeral of her father-in-law, Laertes. She claimed that she would choose a husband as soon as the shroud was completed. By day, the queen, a renowned weaver, worked on a great loom in the royal halls. At night, she secretly unraveled what she had done, amazingly deceiving the young suitors. Her ploy failed only when one of her servants eventually betrayed her and told the suitors what was happening.
The contest of the bow and axes is another example of Penelope's guile; it also illustrates her wry sense of destiny. After Odysseus returns to Ithaca, the queen announces first to the visiting beggar, whom she suspects to be Odysseus, that she will hold a contest in which the suitors will be asked to string the great bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through a dozen axes, an old trick of her husband's, and that she will be the wife of the man who can perform the feat. The choice of this particular contest is no coincidence; Penelope knows exactly what she is doing. If the old beggar really is Odysseus in disguise, he alone has any realistic chance of winning the contest.