The Crucible Study Guide

The Crucible

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.

Brief Summary

The act opens in the vestry room of the Salem meetinghouse, which is being used by the General Court. The court is in session, and off-stage, Judge Hathorne, who is in charge of the proceedings, is questioning Martha Corey, Giles's wife. Giles accuses Putnam of using the trial as a way to get land. They attempt to remove Giles from the court, but as he asserts that he has evidence to support his claim, he is removed to the vestry room. Judge Hathorne, Deputy Governor Danforth, Ezekiel Cheever, and Rev. Parris enter.

Giles explains that it is his wife being condemned, and that the accusations against her result partially from statements he had made to Hale. Danforth inquires further, and then asks him to prepare an official statement for the court. Francis Nurse insists that the girls are frauds, which Danforth must consider. Mary Warren, escorted by Proctor, enters.

Proctor gives Danforth the deposition in which Mary states that she had been lying about seeing spirits. Parris is alarmed, and Danforth is cautious. He questions Mary, who weakly contends that she lied in court that the other girls did as well, and continue to do so. Danforth asks Proctor about his motives, especially if he desires to undermine the court, which Proctor denies, defending his religious obedience.

Danforth informs Proctor that Elizabeth might be pregnant. Danforth then encourages Proctor to drop the matter since he believes that Proctor's main reason for offering the evidence is to clear his wife's name. Proctor continues to assert her innocence, which makes Danforth suspicious.

Danforth reviews the depositions. The first is a statement of the good opinion of several of the women accused; the second states that Putnam has prompted his daughter to cry out against witches in order to gain their land; the third is Mary Warren's deposition, in which she states that she never saw Satan, or any spirits. Hale supports her claim, but Danforth is severely troubled.

Danforth orders the girls to be brought in and begins to question Mary. Though upset, she maintains that she lied before, but is telling the truth in the deposition. Danforth asks Abigail if the statements are true, which she denies. He then begins to question both Abigail and Mary about the doll that was found in the Proctors' house, which Mary contends was her own. Proctor argues that Abigail intends to murder.

During the questioning, Proctor mentions the dancing in the woods, which surprises Danforth. Parris is questioned, and he tries to deny it, but Hale supports the claim, and he must agree that he had seen it. Hathorne then asks Mary about the times in court in which she seemed to be physically affected by bad spirits. She explains that she thought she could see them, but she was purposely causing mistaking herself.

Danforth considers Mary's testimony seriously and begins to question Abigail, who becomes aggressive, almost verbally attacking Danforth for doubting her sincerity. She threatens him, and Danforth weakens. Abigail and the girls begin to act affected by Mary's spirit. Proctor attacks Abigail and calls her a whore. Danforth questions Proctor as to his meaning, and he confesses his lechery.

Danforth is horrified, and questions Abigail, who refuses to answer, and threatens leaving the court. Danforth calls for Elizabeth, to see if they are telling the truth. When she is brought into the room, he questions her as to the reason for dismissing Abigail. She is at first evasive, but when confronted, unable to see from Proctor that the truth is known, lies and says that he never slept with Abigail. Danforth is convinced that Proctor is lying, Hale is convinced that Proctor is telling the truth. The girls continue to attack Mary, and she eventually joins them in their shrieking. She turns on Proctor, accusing him of the intention to overthrow the court.

Proctor, completely out of control and enraged by the proceedings, announces that God is dead, decries the court, and is arrested. Hale denounces the court and leaves, furious.

Detailed Summary

The act opens in the vestry room of the Salem meetinghouse, which is being used by the General Court. The court is in session, and off-stage, Judge Hathorne, who is in charge of the proceedings, is questioning Martha Corey, Giles's wife. She is confessing her innocence, and her husband enters the court claiming he has evidence. He accuses Putnam of using the trial as a land grab. They attempt to remove him from the court, but as he asserts that he has evidence to support his claim, he is removed to the vestry room by Herrick, that is, brought onstage, to discuss the matter.

Hale follows him, and tries to calm him. Judge Hathorne enters; Deputy Governor Danforth, Ezekiel Cheever, and Rev. Parris join him. Hathorne is angered by the interruption and questions him as to his purpose. Giles explains that it is his wife being condemned, and that the accusations against her result partially from statements he had made. Danforth inquires further, and then asks him to prepare an official statement for the court. Francis Nurse then pleads with Danforth to be heard. Danforth is dismissive, but Francis insists that the girls are frauds, which shocks Danforth and forces him to listen. Danforth explains his position of power, describing the number of people sentenced and already hanged by his signature, but Francis continues to assert that the girls are fakes. Francis brings in Mary Warren, who is escorted by Proctor. Parris tries to warn Danforth about Proctor, while Hale encourages Danforth to listen to Mary. Proctor gives Danforth the deposition in which Mary states that she had been lying about seeing spirits. Parris is alarmed, and Danforth is cautious. He questions Mary, who weakly contends that she lied in court and that the other girls did as well, and continue to do so. Danforth asks Proctor about his motives, especially if he desires to undermine the court, which Proctor denies. Cheever offers the information that Proctor damned the court and ripped up the warrant when he arrived to pick up Elizabeth. Proctor defends himself by saying he was upset because of the circumstances, and so Danforth proceeds by questioning his religious fervor. Cheever again offers the information that Proctor had been seen plowing on Sundays, which Danforth is surprised to hear, though Hale and Giles defend the farmer.

Danforth is still considering the evidence, and then informs Proctor that his wife says that she is pregnant. Danforth is skeptical since a physical examination showed no signs, but mentions that he is willing to let matters rest for another month until signs might be seen. Danforth then encourages Proctor to drop the matter since he believes that his main reason for offering the evidence is to clear his wife's name. Proctor does not change his mind, insisting that the evidence be heard for the good of all the wives. Danforth is then seemingly convinced that he does intend to attempt to overthrow the court, but allows the evidence to be heard.

The first matter of evidence is a statement of the good opinion of several of the women accused, signed by people within the town. Parris suggests that the people be summoned for questioning, which causes Francis utter despair, as he promised the people signing that they would not become further involved. Giles then offers his evidence, which asserts that Putnam has prompted his daughter to cry out against witches in order to gain their land. Giles has the information from a man who heard Putnam discuss the matter, and Danforth insists on the name. Giles refuses to name the name since that man would then end up in court. Since he will not cooperate, Danforth arrests Giles for contempt of court. Proctor attempts to defend Giles, but Parris attacks Proctor. Hale interjects that the townspeople in general are afraid of the court and therefore hesitant to become involved with it. Danforth immediately equates the fear with guilt. Giles is enraged by the situation, and tries to attack Putnam. Proctor attempts to calm Giles, and then proceeds with his own interests. He puts forth Mary Warren's deposition, in which she states that she never saw Satan, or any spirits. Hale supports the statement, but Danforth is severely troubled. Danforth defends his position, regardless of the accuracy of the deposition, which he is still working out.

Danforth reads the deposition, while the others breathlessly wait. He then orders the girls to be brought in and begins to question Mary. She begins to sob while being questioned, but maintains that she lied before, but is telling the truth in the deposition. Abigail, Mercy, Betty and Susanna are brought in by Cheever, and Danforth informs them of the Mary's claims. Danforth asks Abigail if the statements are true, which she denies. He then begins to question both Abigail and Mary about the doll that was found in the Proctors' house, which Mary contends was her own. Proctor says that Abigail intends to murder. During the questioning, Proctor mentions the dancing in the woods, which surprises Danforth. Parris is questioned, and he tries to deny it, but Hale supports the claim, and he must agree that he had seen it. Hathorne then asks Mary about the times in court in which she seemed to be physically affected by bad spirits, which she answers was an act. Mary describes the way in which she could pretend, though when they ask her to demonstrate, she cannot. She responds by saying that she thought she could see them, but that she was purposely causing mistaking herself. Danforth considers Mary's testimony seriously and begins to question Abigail, who becomes aggressive, almost verbally attacking Danforth for doubting her sincerity. She threatens him, and Danforth weakens. Abigail then begins to be affected by something, and looks to Mary for the cause. The girls join in, all acting affected by Mary's spirit. Proctor attacks Abigail and calls her a whore. Danforth questions Proctor as to his meaning, and he confesses his lechery.

Danforth is horrified, and questions Abigail, who refuses to answer, and threatens leaving the court. Danforth calls for Elizabeth, meaning to test her, to see if they are telling the truth. He makes everyone stay quiet about the proceedings, so she is unaffected by what has transpired. When she is brought into the room, he questions her as to the reason for dismissing Abigail. She is at first evasive, but when confronted, unable to see from Proctor that the truth is known, lies and says that he never slept with Abigail. She then discovers that Proctor confessed, Hale is certain that Proctor is telling the truth, and Abigail claims to see a bird, sent by Mary. Mary defends herself, but the girls only mimic what she says. Danforth continues to question her, and she continues to insist that the girls are faking. After the girls leave the room screaming, Mary joins them in their shrieking and turns on Proctor. She tells Danforth that Proctor forced her to come to the court, with the intention of overthrowing it. Mary goes to Abigail, who accepts her back into the fold.

Proctor, completely out of control and enraged by the proceedings, announces that God is dead, decries the court, and is arrested. Hale denounces the court and leaves, furious.

Act III Analysis

This is the climatic act of the play, in which the action of the preceding two acts comes to a head. By the end of this act, the power of the court is clear, and the injustice of it is frustratingly obvious. Danforth is in complete control, and the girls have the court under their command. Abigail is able to exact her revenge on Elizabeth, and Proctor's public confession is rendered void by Abigail's threats to leave. This threat is heeded strongly by Danforth, who knows that without the girls, the court could not exist, and his handling of the entire situation would be questioned and criticized.

In this act, the parallels between the Salem witch-trials and the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s become most evident, as the husbands attempt to defend their accused wives. The high regard with which the women are held is dismissed perfunctorily, and thus the effort that they put forward for the good of the society is ignored and rebuffed. This echoes the way in which respected artists and intellectuals were suspected and accused by the McCarthy hearings, despite evidence from their work and their past, which argued the opposite.

Likewise, the catch-22 situation in which Giles Corey finds himself reflects the circular reasoning of the courts for whom truth is not the issue. In general, the public fear of irrational courts is voiced by Francis Nurse, and demonstrates the extent to which fear is equated with guilt by those who wish to fuel hysteria. In this way, the theme of the impracticality and impossibility of seeking to uncover 'invisible' truth is highlighted, for those who do seek to offer the truth are automatically accused of wishing to overthrow the court. It is impossible to have a defense in that situation, and it becomes clear that that is one of the court's objectives. By making every defense an attack, the court is justified in closing off those who might be able to escape the court's control.

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