By Arthur Miller
The play begins with a narration introducing the current political climate afflicting the town of Salem. There is an immediate sense of tension as the narrator explains Salem’s geographic isolation, and the constant conflict it is engaged in with local Native American tribes. The narrator explains that this underlying instability will play a crucial role in driving the events of the plot.
The story proper begins in the attic of Reverend Parris. His daughter, Betty, lies motionless in bed. The previous day, the Reverend had seen his daughter and other local girls dancing naked in the forest, in what appeared to be some sort of pagan ritual. Word has spread of this incident, and rumours of the presence of witchcraft have consumed the town overnight. Parris’ immediate concern is the reputational damage he will suffer as a result of the commotion, and he aggressively questions his niece, Abigail, whom is presented as being the ringleader of the girls. Abigail of course denies that the girls were practicing witchcraft, and instead claims they were merely dancing. Thomas Putnam, a wealthy man, and his wife, Ann, arrive and urge Paris to invite the Reverend Hale to investigate the allegations of witchcraft and to address the crowd.
The other girls involved in the incident arrive and Betty briefly wakes up to be lectured by Abigail to not waiver from the story they have told. The girls are clearly intimated by Abigail and are scared of the truth being revealed – that they were attempting to bring a curse upon Elizabeth Proctor.
John Proctor arrives and orders the other girls to leave. He confronts Abigail, and it is revealed the two had an affair while she worked as a servant for Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. Abigail still has feelings for John, and while she believes they are mutual, Proctor denies this. They argue as a psalm is sung downstairs, and Betty bolts upright in bed.
Various townspeople rush upstairs, and we are introduced to the diverse perspectives to the apparent presence of witchcraft. Some urge caution and rationality, while others hold fast to their belief that it is indeed witchcraft that has descended upon Salem. Miller also introduces us to the tensions that exist between the characters, which inform their perspectives.
Hale arrives and begins his investigation. He is approached by Giles Corey, who asks the Hale to look into the unfamiliar books his wife has recently started reading. Hale interrogates Parris, Abigail and Tituba over what they know of the incident in the woods. Abigail claims Tituba forced her to drink blood, while Tituba counters that Abigail forced her to conjure a deadly curse. Parris threatens to whip Tituba to death if she does not confess to witchcraft. This makes Tituba collapse and falsely confess that the devil has possessed her and others in the town. She is prompted to accuse Sarah Osborne and Sarah Goode of witchcraft. Mrs Putnam, who has lost seven children, identifies Osborne as her midwife, and states that it must have been Osborne’s interference that caused her children’s deaths.
In a desperate attempt to keep the group’s attention focused on the issue of witchcraft, Abigail fakes being possessed, and identifies Osborne and Goode as being the ones who have been “dancing with the devil.” Betty rises from bed and states that George Jacobs has similarly been involved in witchcraft. Hale frantically orders for the arrest of those who have been named.
In the second narrative intrusion, the author highlights the similarities between Salem’s fear of witchcraft and the paranoia engulfing 1950s America over the perceived threat of communism.
Act Two is set entirely in the Proctor’s household. John and Elizabeth are infuriated that dozens of people have been arrested for witchcraft based only on the accusations of Abigail. John knows that Abigail is lying but is unsure of how to communicate this knowledge without revealing his affair to his wife. Elizabeth feels uneasy that John was alone with Abigail, and says that as long as he retains feelings for her, he will not be able to redeem himself.
Mary Warren enters and says that the majority of people who have been accused will most likely hang. Goody Osborne is included in that number, but Sarah Osborne has escaped penalty by confessing that she made a pact with Satan to torment Christians. John threatens to beat Elizabeth because he feels that she has been neglecting her duties. Mary reveals that the court ordered the hanging of Elizbeth, but Mary was able to defend her. Mary however refuses to say who accused Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is convinced that it was Abigail. She urges John to go to court and reveal Abigail’s lies, but he is hesitant as doing so would mean revealing his adultery.
Hale arrives to interview Elizabeth. He announces that Rebecca Nurse was accused too, but that he doubts the allegation because of her extreme faith, though he does state his belief that anything is possible. Hale is suspicious of the Proctors because they do not attend church regularly and one of their three sons is yet to be baptised. John explains that this is because of his personal resentment of Parris. Hale challenges him to recite the Ten Commandments. John forgets “thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Elizabeth is angered that Hale has chosen to question her before Abigail. As Hale is leaving, John finally reveals to him that he knows Abigail is lying. Hale replies that most of the accused have confessed to which John points out that if they had not, they would be hanged. Hale acknowledges this.
Giles Corey and Francis Nurse arrive and announce that both their wives have been arrested. A group led by Ezekiel Cheever and George Herrick arrive outside the house with a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. Cheever picks up the doll that was earlier given to Elizabeth by Mary and removes a pin from inside it. He states that Abigail had suffered a fit earlier and that a needle had been found stuck into her stomach. Abigail claimed that Elizabeth used witchcraft to stab her, using the doll as a conduit. Mary is brought into the room to explain that she made the doll and stuck the pin into it, ostensibly absolving Elizabeth of any guilt, but Cheever is unconvinced.
As Cheever prepares to arrest Elizabeth, John, in a fit of rage, tears up the warrant and threatens Cheever and Nurse with a gun, but is calmed by Elizabeth. Elizabeth surrenders to the men. John denounces Hale as a coward and asks him why he is so willing to believe every one of the accuser’s representations without hesitation. This gives pause to Hale, who conjectures that the current events have been caused by a dark secret that must be brought to light.
John forces Mary to go to court and expose the other girls’ lies. Mary warns him that Abigail will expose their affair if necessary. John is taken aback that Mary knows about his relationship with Abigail, but presses onward with his plan anyway.
The narrative leaps forward thirty-seven days. Act Three takes place in the General Court of Salem. At the trial of Martha Corey, Francis and Giles make desperate attempts to interrupt the proceedings and to expose them as a sham. The men are finally ordered out, and the court reconvenes in a different room. John arrives with Mary Warren and they inform Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne of the girls’ lies. Danforth then tells John that Elizabeth is pregnant, and that he will delay her execution until after she gives birth if John withdraws his case. John refuses, and submits a deposition signed by dozens of locals attesting to the good character of Elizabeth, Rebecca and Martha. Herrick attests to John’s truthfulness.
Parris and Hathorne dismiss the deposition as illegal. Hale criticises this decision, and demands to know why the accused are not allowed to defend themselves. Danforth explains that the nature of witchcraft does not practicably allow for a credible defence. All signatories of the deposition are ordered arrested for questioning. Giles submits his own deposition, accusing Putnam of forcing his daughter to accuse George Jacobs in a scheme to secure possession of his land. Giles refuses to reveal the source of this information in order to protect them from prosecution.
Danforth threatens to arrest Giles for contempt of court, to which Giles replies that he cannot be arrested for “contempt of a hearing.” Danforth then announces that the court is in session, and Giles is arrested.
John submits Mary’s deposition, which states that Abigail coerced her to accuse others. Abigail denies this, and Parris and Hathorne challenge Mary to “pretend to be possessed,” but Mary is too nervous.
John then comes after Abigail’s character, and announces that she was caught dancing naked in the woods the night Betty became ‘bewitched.’ As Danforth begins to question Abigail, she exclaims that Mary has bewitched her, causing John to lose his temper and call her a whore. John confesses to their affair, and states that Abigail is trying to have Elizabeth killed so that she may “dance with me on my wife’s grave.”
Danforth orders Elizabeth to appear before the court to confirm the truth of this. But Elizabeth is unaware that John has publicly confessed to the affair, and in an attempt to protect her husband’s reputation, she explains that Abigail was fired because of mere suspicion on Elizabeth’s part. Hale appears to understand what has happened, but Danforth relies on John’s earlier statement that Elizabeth would never lie, and dispenses with her testimony.
Chaos overtakes the courtroom. Abigail and the girls run about wildly, claiming that Mary’s spirit is attacking them in the form of a yellow bird that only they can see. Mary becomes increasingly distraught as Danforth tells her she is doomed to be hanged. In her panic, May recants all her allegations against the other girls and claims that John forced her to falsely accuse the other girls and that he himself is possessed by the Devil.
Despaired, John declares “God is dead” and is arrested. Hale denounces the proceedings for their chaos and quits the court.
Act Four takes place some months later, in the town jail. Sarah Good shares a cell with Tituba, who has gone insane and now claims to be able to speak to Satan directly. The guilt of having arrested so many of his friends has caught up with Herrick, who is now an alcoholic. Of the dozens of villagers who were accused of witchcraft, most have received lengthy prison sentences and have had their property confiscated, a dozen have been hanged, and seven are to be hanged at sunrise for refusing to confess, including John, Rebecca and Martha.
Giles was tortured to death as the court tried to extract a confession from him. He resisted, ensuring that his sons would receive his property.
Salem has become consumed by disorder as so much of the population is either dead or imprisoned. People talk of a rebellion against the courts in nearby Andover, prompting discussion of a similar revolt in Salem. Fearful of what this would mean for her, Abigail escapes to England with Mercy Lewis after stealing Parris’ life savings.
Danforth and Hale have returned to Salem to speak with Parris. Hale has returned too, to speak with the condemned. Parris begs Danforth to delay the executions so that he may secure more confessions and avoid executing some of the town’s most liked members. Hale similarly urges Danforth to pardon the seven who are to be hanged, so that the town may move on from the whole affair. But Danforth refuses, saying that to do so would invite doubt about the court process.
Elizabeth is summoned by Danforth and Hale and ordered to try to get John to confess. She knows this attempt will be in vain, but agrees anyway, as it will be an opportunity to say farewell. During their discussion, John reveals that he has held fast to his conviction because of his fiery resentment for his accusers. Elizabeth forgives John for his past wrongdoings, and expresses sadness that he can no longer see the good in himself. John states that he intends to betray his own morality and make a false confession, explaining that he does not wish to die a martyr.
Danforth, Hathorne and Parris are relieved by this, and John makes a verbal confession to them, but refuses to comment on the guilt or innocence of the others. John is allowed to sign a written confession, but he is reluctant to do so, as it would mean his reputation, and that of his family, would be destroyed. An argument ensues and culminates with John renouncing his confession entirely.
Danforth orders the sheriff to take John to be hanged. With the threat of rebellion now tantalisingly close to becoming a reality, Putnam and Parris urge Proctor to confess. Hale makes one last attempt to get Elizabeth to convince John to confess, but she knows he will not, as she explains
“He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!”
Context and purpose
By the time Miller’s The Crucible was published in 1953, the world had found itself fractured into two competing blocs: the East, dominated by communism, and the West, where capitalism and democracy formed the basis of politics and economics. The dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US forces in August 1945 had laid the foundations for what was to become the Cold War, a period of immense geopolitical tension between the US and USSR that was characterised by the ever-present threat of nuclear war and lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It was during the 1950s when Americans really awakened to the possibility that capitalism and democracy were not invincible concepts: there were, Americans were told, people from other parts of the world who wanted to see America fail, and communism rise in its place. While this was true, in that the USSR sought to expand its power – just as the US did – much discussion of the USSR’s intentions to invade America was exaggerated for political effect; it was propaganda. The idea that Soviet agents could be lurking in any corner of US politics, society, business, culture, or any other part of daily life terrified people. This widespread hysteria became known as ‘The Red Scare.’
The man most responsible for spreading fear into American society during this time was Senator Joseph McCarthy. Beginning in 1950, he publicly stated that all corners of American life had been infiltrated by Soviet spies, and that a communist takeover of the US was imminent. His appearances on television and radio only served to increase the sense of paranoia throughout America, with especially those who possessed more progressive or liberal perspectives on issues such as race, sexuality, the scope of government responsibility and power and economics living in fear of being ‘black-listed’ – publicly accused of being a communist. This phenomenon of widespread panic based on unfounded or vague accusations became known as ‘McCarthyism.’
These sensational claims saw McCarthy rise to national prominence, but just as quickly as he rose, he fell, and was censured by the US Senate for his unfounded and baseless accusations. The damage was done, however.
In 1692, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was plunged into chaos when rumours emerged that some residents had been seen dancing violently in the woods. The rumours, and accusations that followed, spread like wildfire, and within the space of twelve months, 200 women had been accused of witchcraft, resulting in the executions of thirty of them.
The trials and legal procedure were biased and defective, as opinions of people’s supposed guilt or innocence were coloured by religious superstitions and personal feuds. Indeed, there was not much of a trial process at all; rather, the accused had their guilt announced to them, and if they could not defend themselves on the spot, they were sentenced to hang. It was only when an external judiciary arrived in the town that the process was brought to an end, and people realised how quickly they had let themselves fall into the clutches of chaos and panic. The Salem Witch Trials became known as the definitive example of mass hysteria.
Comparing the two events together, it is obvious that Miller’s purpose in presenting a semi-fictionalised account of the Salem Witch Trials, written from the perspective of someone experiencing McCarthyism first-hand, was to demonstrate the enduring tendency of individuals and collectives to abandon reason and logic for fear during moments of crises, and how those situations are exploited by those seeking to pursue their own interests.
Human Experiences Explored
The Tendency of Humans to Respond to the Unknown with Fear
From the outset of the text, we see that the townspeople are predisposed to reacting to the unknown with emotion rather than reason. Those voices that do urge reason are consistently marginalised, and indeed punished. They are punished in two ways: some are ostracised, while others, such as Giles Corey, are killed, and Hale is left to suffer the burden of guilt for not having done enough to restrain the madness that consumed Salem. It was inevitable that this fear would engulf Salem, with the impassioned “the whole country’s talking witchcraft!” Here, we also get a sense of the broader political and cultural context in which the events of the play unfold, which of course parallels Miller’s contemporary context: pockets of mistrust and apprehension are emerging everywhere, with the nation seemingly ready to combust. Indeed, the frantic behaviour of the primary villains at the play’s end – Parris et al – conveys how it is always only when the harm has already been done that the consequences of letting fear consume the individual and the collective can be fully recognised.
The Way in which Fear Undermines Social Norms and Cohesion
At its core, Miller’s text is a cautionary tale of the way in which fear can completely consume a society. The text speaks to the enduring tendency of humans to abandon rationality for impulse in times of crisis, and the immense human, emotional and cultural cost of this pattern. Such is alluded to in the metaphor “there are children dangling the keys to the kingdom,” through which Miller stresses how the logic and normalcy that would ordinarily – perhaps optimistically – govern society has become completely inverted. Similarly, Abigail’s emergence as a beacon of truth is an example of dramatic irony, as the audience can see how absurd it is that amid all the chaos, it is the one person who is responsible for it all who is trusted the most.
The extent to which the town has become so completely dislodged from its moral core is communicated by the death of Giles Corey. He is portrayed as a deeply faithful man, so the fact that he is killed for not betraying his faith – the very thing the court is attempted to restore to Salem – demonstrates how people are no longer able to recognise reason and logic. The consequences of allowing oneself to be led astray by fear and act on impulse is conveyed through the character arc of Hale, who by the end of the play is wrecked by guilt for his part in leading the town to its demise. More broadly, the spectre of tension and rebellion that hangs over the town from the outset, and only becomes more and more visceral, reflects how hysteria may lead to the complete and totalising breakdown of social norms.
How that Chaos is Exploited by Power-Seeking Individuals
By allegorising the events of 1692 Salem, Miller was explicitly denouncing the actions of contemporary politicians such as McCarthy and his conservative allies as they sought to exploit the fear of communism to secure political success. Parris is motivated by a desire to protect his reputation and status as a leader in the town, while others who bring accusations against their neighbours do so not because they genuinely believe in witchcraft, but they recognise the opportunity to destroy their enemies. Historians have proposed that the real Salem Witch Trials were a concerted effort by a group of townspeople to essentially steal the property of those they disliked by having them convicted of witchcraft.
A Climate of Anxiety Increases Pressure to Conform
As the fear spreads, the town is divided into the accusers and the accused. Within this dichotomy, the pressure to conform to the views of those who wield power grows, as individuals are motivated by self-preservation. This forces individuals, most obviously Martha and John, to confront a tension within themselves: to stay loyal to the truth and their sense of morality and justice, or to betray those ideals and save themselves. It is through John’s character that we see how this tension is navigated: he remains steadfast in his mission to reveal the truth, and while he is briefly tempted to betray himself, he determines that staying true to his inner conviction is the better path to take.
Asserting One's Individuality Within That Climate Becomes More Costly
It follows that asserting one’s individuality within such a climate of hysteria becomes more costly. This idea is relatively uncomplex, and we see it unfold in a very linear fashion: those who refuse to confess to witchcraft are killed, while those who do are spared, but face ostracization as a result. Giles Corey is killed for the simple act of refusing to recant his deposition. John too is killed because he decides that he would rather die a martyr for the cause of individualism rather than live a lie that would completely rewrite his identity in the minds of those he knows forever.