Some question whether Odysseus was recognized by Penelope and if this helped to build up the intensity of the story. Joseph Russo mentioned this topic in "Interview and Aftermath: Dream, Fantasy and Intuition in Odyssey 19 & 20." The lies told by Odysseus also increased the excitement of The Odyssey. Russo believed that Penelope, in her subconscious, did recognize Odysseus disguised as a beggar. For example, in Book 19, Penelope revealed her innermost thoughts to Odysseus, who was disguised as the beggar. Russo suggested that unconsciously the beggar reminded Penelope of Odysseus when she invited Odysseus to her room to talk and confided in him about her dreams (Russo,14).
Russo’s suggestion is reasonable however there is another way to look at this part of the book. There were not only the outward signs of Penelope encouraging him, but she also gave reasons to believe she did not think Odysseus was alive. By telling Odysseus (the beggar) of her dreams Penelope showed trust in him, but by scheduling the contest of the bow, Penelope showed that she believed her husband was never coming back. Russo argues that this was only a defense mechanism. “If she were to believe Odysseus was alive, she would be letting her guard down, and she did not want to risk another disappointment” (Russo 15). I agree with Russo’s belief that because of the tension between husband and wife, there is a large amount of excitement and stress in Odysseus' house after he returns.
If one were to read the fireside conversation in Book XIX again, imagining that Penelope knows to whom she's talking it seems to fit together. Why else, after holding the suitors at arm's length for three years, would she suddenly decide to bring things to a head by agreeing to marry the man who best shoots Odysseus's bow? She also remarks when he sits down beside her that she imagines Odysseus must look as much the worse for wear by then as the beggar does. Such a comment seems too convenient to be coincidental. Then when she tells the beggar of her decision to hold the bow contest, he tells her that he thinks that's a very good idea, and Odysseus will be there to use it. You'll notice that she doesn't spend the next day anxiously looking out the windows for Odysseus to show up.
Further analysis of this contest gives hints towards Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus. When none of the suitors could even bend the bow the inch or two needed to string it and the beggar asks to have a try, she insists that the suitors let him--and adds that, even if he wins, he shouldn't think she'll marry HIM. Is this dramatic irony or irony of another kind? That is, do only Odysseus and the reader know that she already has, or does she herself know that she married that man twenty-some years ago?
Now here is a loophole in this theory. The night before the contest after talking with the beggar Penelope prays for death. Bruce Louden suggests that, perhaps because Odysseus hasn't revealed himself to her, she finds him so cold and remote that she wonders whether it was worth her long faithful wait to get him back in such an unfeeling state. So look again at what she does in Book XXIII. If she's already sure that the beggar is Odysseus, why does she test him with that little game about moving the bed? Of course, after waiting so long while he's...