Penelope as Moral Agent
Helene P. Foley
In his Poetics, Aristotle defines tragic character in relation to tragic choice. Character, Aristotle argues, reveals a prohairesis or a process of undertaking moral commitment in which a person chooses to act or to abstain from action in circumstances where the choice is not obvious ( Poetics 1450b8-10). 1 The central moral decision on which the action of the Odyssey turns is Penelope's. She must decide whether to stay in Odysseus' house, continue to guard it, and wait for her husband's return or to marry one of the Suitors. Yet she must make this decision in ignorance of Odysseus' identity; that is, she does not know who the beggar is and hence whether Odysseus is alive or dead. Thus, as in Aristotle's exemplary tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos, Penelope's choice entails the tragic dilemma of a person faced with the need to act without critical knowledge of the circumstances.
A closer look at Aristotle's assumptions about women as moral agents, however, makes clear that one cannot generalize so easily from Oedipus to Penelope. In his Politics and Ethics, Aristotle defends the view, against his teacher, Plato, that women are by nature morally inferior to men. Woman's natural function is to reproduce the species and care for the daily needs of her household; man's is to live a life in the polis that offers him opportunities for rational activity, higher learning, leisure, and the exercise of the virtues suitable for political activities. Men are good absolutely, women are good for their function; women's virtues fit them to be ruled, men's to rule ( Eudemian Ethics 7.1237a). A woman's capacity for moral deliberation is