The Crucible

Try a teacher's guide that provides a synopsis of The Crucible, the classic play by Arthur Miller about the Salem Witch Trials. Also included in this literature guide are discussion questions and extended learning activities.
Grades:
9 |
10 |
11 |
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Updated: June 9, 2019
Page 2 of 6

OVERVIEW
Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Act One

Act One begins with the Rev. Samuel Parris praying for his daughter Betty who lies faint in her bed, suffering from a strange malady. Betty and Abigail, Parris's niece, and some of the other village girls had been surprised by Parris in the forest as they were engaged in a voodoo ritual led by Tituba, Parris's black slave. Betty fainted and still had not recovered. Ann and Thomas Putnam, prosperous villagers, arrive and claim that the children are suffering from "the Devil's touch" at the hands of witches.

When the adults leave to pray with townspeople who have heard rumors of witchcraft, Abigail and Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren wake Betty. Betty accuses Abigail of "drinking blood" and says that Abigail will be whipped. Abigail threatens the other girls with grievous harm if they admit too much to the elders.

At this point, John Proctor, a farmer who had an affair with Abigail, enters. Abigail tells John of her continuing love and desire, but Proctor rejects her saying nothing happened between them.

Soon the Rev. John Hale, a specialist in witch hunting arrives and examines Betty who has fainted again. He then questions Abigail and Tituba. Tituba, afraid of being hung as a witch, professes faith in God and confesses that two townswomen, Goody Good and Goody Osburn, came to her with the Devil. Abigail and then Betty claim they have been bewitched but now turn to God. The act closes as the girls ecstatically chant the names of the townspeople whom they accuse of consorting with the Devil.

Act Two

Act Two opens in John Proctor's house eight days after the girls' first accusations. Deputy Governor Danforth has arrived in Salem to supervise the court proceedings against the townspeople accused as witches. Fourteen people are imprisoned, and there is talk of hanging.

John Proctor's wife Elizabeth encourages him to go into town to testify against Abby and the girls. There is tension between the Proctors because Elizabeth has not forgiven John for his affair with Abigail.

The Proctor's servant Mary Warren arrives, and although forbidden to go to town, she has been attending the trial and is "crying out" with the other girls against the accused witches. Just as John is about to whip her, she shocks the Proctors by saying that she defended Elizabeth when Abigail accused her. She gives Elizabeth a doll she has made while at the trial. As John and Elizabeth are arguing about what to do, the Reverend Hale arrives to ask questions and to test the "Christian character" of the house. He finds that John can recite all of the commandments except the one forbidding adultery.

Next, two townsmen, Giles Corey and Francis Nurse, arrive to seek John Proctor's help because their wives have just been arrested for witchcraft. As the men discuss the events, the marshal arrives with a warrant for Elizabeth's arrest. She has been accused by Abigail of sending her spirit through the doll to stab Abigail in the stomach with a needle. Over John Proctor's violent protest, Elizabeth is hauled off in chains.

After the visitors leave, an enraged John Proctor demands that Mary Warren tell the court about the girl's fraudulent behavior. As the curtain falls, Proctor is determined to fight the proceedings even revealing his own sexual misconduct.

Scene 2

In this extra scene appearing at the rear of the reader's edition, Proctor meets Abigail in a woods to warn he will charge her with adultery if she does not recant her charge against Elizabeth. Abigail, unmoved by his pleas, appears to be deluded and says he is pretending to reject her.

Act Three

Act three takes place in the Salem meeting house that serves as the general court. In this act, we see the helplessness of the innocent in the face of unjust legal authority. Francis Nurse, Giles Corey, and John Proctor present their cases to Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne. When Proctor presents a petition signed by 91 people attesting to the good character of the men's wives, Danforth issues warrants for the questioning of those who signed. Corey charges Putnam with inciting his daughter to accuse a townsman of witchcraft in order to get the townsman's land. Corey has a witness to support the charge but, fearing that the witness will be arrested, refuses to name him. Corey is, therefore, arrested for contempt of court.

Proctor presents his case and a deposition by Mary Warren that she never saw Satan or any spirits and that the other girls are lying to Danforth. However, when Abigail and the other girls are brought before the court, Abigail denies the charges against her with indignation and leads the girls in a frenzied act of being bewitched by Mary. Proctor interrupts the charade by grabbing Abigail and accusing her of being his whore. To test the truth of this charge, Danforth brings in Elizabeth and questions her about her husband's fidelity. Elizabeth lies to save her husband's reputation, but in so doing undermines the charge against Abigail. The girls renew their act of being possessed by the spirit of Mary Warren. Overcome by their hysterical display, Mary gives in and accuses Proctor of being a witch. Danforth accepts the charge, and Proctor laughs in his face, blaming Danforth and himself for being afraid to reveal the truth. Danforth acts to preserve the reputation of his court more than to seek justice. The Rev. Hale, now convinced of the evil of the court, denounces the proceedings and walks out as Danforth calls to him.

Act Four

The final act opens in a Salem jail cell where Sarah Good and Tituba await hanging. They are happily deluded by the belief that they will be taken to Barbados by the devil.

The Salem trial is ending. Rumors of a rebellion against witchcraft trials in a nearby town ignite fear that the people of Salem will riot if upstanding citizens are hung.

Hale, disillusioned and humbled, pleads with the prisoners to save their lives by making false confessions. He requests Danforth pardon the accused, but Danforth refuses saying twelve have already hung for the same crime. When Hale asks Elizabeth to counsel Proctor to lie and save himself, she balks but agrees to see him. Alone with Proctor, Elizabeth forgives him for being unfaithful and blames herself for not being able to love him enough. She cannot counsel him to lie and instead tells him to make his own decision and to be his own judge.

Proctor, refusing to be a martyr, confesses to being a witch, but stops at indicting others. When Proctor tears up his confession, Elizabeth rushes to him and they embrace. As Proctor and Rebecca Nurse are led to be hung, Hale begs Elizabeth to plead with Proctor to save himself, but Elizabeth cries, "He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!" The curtain falls as the sunlight illuminates Elizabeth's face and the drums "rattle like bones."


BEFORE READING THE PLAY

This section of the teacher's guide provides questions and activities that can be used to introduce The Crucible, its themes, characters, and historic context to students.

All Subjects

Because the play is set in a period which may or may not be familiar to students it is important to provide all students with crucial historic background.

  • Ask students what they know about the period of the Salem witch trials. List the information they provide on the chalkboard or on chart paper.
  • Either read to the students or have them read an appropriate section from a U.S. history textbook. This should provide a basic, accurate outline of the events of the period.
  • In small groups, the students can develop a timeline of the events of the period using either an encyclopedia or other source. This can be posted in the classroom for further reference.

Certain terms and concepts are critical to an understanding of the play. It is helpful to introduce these to students prior to reading the play. Ask students what each means and list them on chart paper. If they do not know the definitions, have them look them up in a dictionary.

  • Theocracy: The rule of a state by God or a god.
  • Democracy: Government by the people.
  • Autocracy: A government with one person as the supreme power over the people.
  • Puritanism: Practices of the Puritans; extreme or excessive strictness in matters of morals and religion.

History

Once students have identified the meaning of each term and discussed each concept, it is helpful to ask these questions:

  • What kind of government does the United States have today?
  • What type of government existed in colonial New England prior to the Revolution?
  • What is the relationship of the church to the state in the current form of U.S. government?
  • What was the relationship of the church to the state in colonial New England?
  • How did Puritanism affect the laws and the courts of colonial New England?

Other historical concepts useful for the students in understanding the Salem witch trials and Miller's play can be discussed. Students can research these topics in small groups to present to the entire class.

  • Slavery: The slave trade between colonial New England and the Caribbean.
  • Witchcraft: The practice of black magic and sorcery in Puritan New England.
  • The culture of Barbados in the 17th century: The events in Salem can be viewed as a clash of cultures.
  • Other witch trials: New England trials prior to Salem trials; Joan of Arc.
  • Joseph McCarthy: House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.*
  • Other more contemporary "witch hunts": Let the students use their knowledge of current U.S. history and come up with their own ideas - they might include Watergate hearings, the presidential campaigns of Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, etc.*
  • History of hate groups: Let students come up with their own ideas based on their knowledge of history. You might begin by asking: "What examples of organized attacks on groups of people are you familiar with?" Their answers might include Nazism, Ku Klux Klan, Skinheads, the McCarthy hearings, etc.* CD-ROM "17th Century"

English

Several terms and concepts helpful to understanding the play should be introduced to students. These can be discussed in terms of the students' prior knowledge and experience.

  • Tragedy: A serious play with an unhappy ending brought about by the characters or central characters impelled by fate (ancient drama) or moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressure. Students should be asked to identify tragedies they have previously read. These can be listed on chart paper and kept for comparative purposes.
  • Crucible: The word crucible has many meanings. Its literal definition is a container that resists heat or the hollow at the bottom of an ore furnace. However, its connotations include melting pot, in the symbolic sense, and bearing of a cross (crux, crusis, + ferre). Have students look up the meaning of the word; later they can examine why Miller selected it for the title of the play.
  • Historic Fiction: The Characteristics of Good Historic Fiction chart (see below) can be placed on an overhead and discussed with the students. After examining the chart, have students list historic fiction they have read.

Characteristics of Good Historic Fiction

Characters

Protagonist

  • often a real individual in history
  • if not real, based on a real individual (e.g.: papers from government agencies or reports, diaries, public documents, papers from historical archives or museums)
  • heroic
  • reveals the plot

Other Characters

  • real individuals in history
  • based on real individuals

Plot

  • revolves around history
  • accurate to the last detail
  • allows the protagonist to develop
  • reveals the history and personalities of the period

Point of View

  • protagonist's
  • third person

Voice

  • usually the author's
  • sometimes the protagonist's

Theme

  • revealing the history
  • revealing the "true" character of historic figures
  • isms (e.g.: patriotism, nationalism, heroism, regionalism, etc.)

Many themes can be found in The Crucible. It is helpful to suggest a few that students might look for as they read. Each can be posted on the top of a sheet of chart paper on a "theme chart" and evidence of it can be added during the reading of the play.

  • Human cruelty in the name of righteousness
  • The Individual and the Community
  • Justice vs. Retribution and revenge
  • Godliness vs. Worldliness
  • Ignorance vs. Wisdom
  • The Puritan Myth
  • Order vs. Individual Freedom


The development of the characters and their relationships in Miller's play is particularly interesting. To introduce students to these characters, provide them with the annotated list of characters on pages 11-13 of this guide and point out the relationship of the characters to the students. Students can develop "character charts" on each character similar to the theme charts suggested above.

The Play

If students are not familiar with the structure of a play, it is helpful to discuss this with them prior to their reading.

  • Acts and scenes
  • Stage directions in italics
  • Rising and falling action
  • Climax

Examine the language of the play in a broad literary sense.

Irony: Instances in which the intended meaning of a word or phrase used is the opposite of what it actually means. There are many instances of ironic language in the play. To help students identify them when they occur, have them discuss ironic statements they recognize in advertisements or in other literature they have read.

Paradox: A statement or event contrary to what one might expect. It is helpful for students to understand the term so that they can discuss the events of Salem as a paradox to what one might have expected from God-fearing people such as the Puritans. Students might identify other historical paradoxes or others found in literature they have read.

Allegory: A story in which people, things, and happenings have another meaning, as in a fable or parable. Many critics have referred to The Crucible as a political allegory. Discuss with students allegories they have read and suggest that they consider how Miller's play is allegorical as they read it.*


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