The Crucible remains a staple of high school English because it is rich in themes that are consistently relevant to human beings regardless of time period. But these themes aren't always easy to explain or dissect in the context of the play, and they can be even harder to develop into essays. Read on for an overview of what a theme is, a list of important themes in The Crucible with specific act-by-act details, and a summary of how to use this information in your essays and other assignments.
What’s a Theme? Why Are Themes Important?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how The Crucible themes are expressed, let's do a quick overview of what themes are and why they matter. A theme is a central topic that is addressed by a work of literature. Themes can be expressed in many different ways. In the case of a play like The Crucible, themes are revealed mainly through the dialogue of the characters. They're also revealed though events in the plot.
Themes tell us what the purpose of the work is. What is the writer attempting to convey to the viewer? The Crucible's themes have lent the play artistic longevity because they're more or less universal to the human experience across time. If you hope to write an awesome essay on The Crucible, you should have extensive knowledge of its themes. If you can show that you understand the themes of a work of literature, you've clearly mastered the material on a deeper level. In the next few sections, I'll take a look at a group of broad themes in The Crucible, including irony, hysteria, reputation, and power.
Theme 1: Irony
First off, what is irony? Many people are under the impression that irony is just when something happens that you don't expect (or that you really hoped wouldn't happen). In reality, true irony only happens when a situation is the exact opposite of what you would expect. The classic example of an incorrect use of irony is in Alanis Morisette's song "Ironic" when she says that "rain on your wedding day" is an example of irony. Well, it's not. Sure, you don't expect or want rain, but it's not the polar opposite of getting married. A real example of irony would be if two married guests got into a fight about going to your wedding that ended in their divorce.
Irony abounds throughout The Crucible as characters who believe they are combating the Devil’s handiwork actually perform it themselves. The ruthlessness with which the suspected witches are treated is aimed at purifying Salem, but it achieves the opposite outcome. The town slips further and further into chaos and paranoia until it reaches a point of total devastation. As Reverend Hale says to Danforth, “Excellency, there are orphans wandering from house to house; abandoned cattle bellow on the highroads, the stink of rotting crops hangs everywhere, and no man knows when the harlots’ cry will end his life - and you wonder yet if rebellion’s spoke?” (Act 4, pg. 121).
The court's attempts to preserve Puritan morality by arresting and executing accused witches ironically lead to the removal of the most virtuous people from society. These people are the only ones who refuse to throw out false accusations or lie about involvement in witchcraft, so they find themselves condemned (this is the fate of Rebecca Nurse). This means that much of the population that remains is comprised of the power-hungry, the selfish, and the cowardly.
There are several ironies in Act 1 that center around Abigail Williams. In her conversation with John, Abigail claims that he helped her realize all the lies she was told by two-faced people in Salem who only publicly adhere to the conventions of respectable society (pg. 22). The irony is that, in the face of John’s rejection, Abigail turns around and creates her own lies soon after that give her increased control over the society she resents. She puts on a fake front to get what she wants, ultimately creating a persona that’s even worse than that of the hypocrites she criticizes. Abigail’s many deceptions are sometimes laughably ironic as she chastises others for lying even as she is spinning falsehoods. In this act, she yells “Don’t lie!” at Tituba immediately before she tells some of the most damning lies of the play accusing Tituba of witchcraft (“She comes to me while I sleep; she’s always making me dream corruptions!” pg. 41).
Hale also makes some unintentionally ironic statements in Act 1 when he begins his investigation. He claims that they must not jump to conclusions based on superstition in their investigation of Betty’s affliction. Hale is convinced that a scientific inquiry based only on facts and reality can be conducted to detect a supernatural presence. This is ironic because searching for "the Devil's marks" as the potential cause of an ailment is inherently superstitious.
Once the accusations begin, Parris initiates an ironic thought process that persists throughout The Crucible: “You will confess yourself or I will take you out and whip you to your death, Tituba!” (pg. 42). This “confess or die” mindset is one of the central ironies of the play. The whole purpose of a trial is to hear both sides of the story before a verdict is reached. In telling people they must confess to their crimes or be hanged, the officials show that they have already decided the person is guilty no matter what evidence is provided in their defense.
In Act 2, John Proctor’s guilt over his affair with Abigail is demonstrated through an ironic exchange with Reverend Hale. When Hale asks him to recite his commandments, the only one he forgets is adultery. This is also the commandment that he has violated most explicitly, so you’d think it would be the first one to spring to mind. The fact that he forgets only this commandment shows that he is trying extremely hard to repress his guilt.
This act also sees the irony of Hale discussing the “powers of the dark” that are attacking Salem (pg. 61). This is irony of the same type that I discussed in the overview of this theme. Hale doesn’t realize that his own fears and suspicions are the real powers of the dark. Salem is under attack from the hysteria that is encouraged by the same people who seek to keep imaginary supernatural demons at bay.
In Act 3, Hale continues to make ironic statements about the existence of concrete proof for the accusations of witchcraft. While touting his holy credentials, he claims that he “dare not take a life without there be a proof so immaculate no slightest qualm of my conscience may doubt it” (pg. 91). This “immaculate proof” that has led him to sign numerous death warrants is nothing but the fabrications of teenage girls and other townspeople seeking petty revenge. These types of statements made by Hale earlier in the play become even more ironic in Act 4 when he realizes he made a horrible mistake by trusting the “evidence” that was presented to him.
Abigail’s presence is always rife with irony in The Crucible, as she constantly chastises others for sins she herself has committed. When she is brought in for questioning and claims to see Mary’s familiar spirit, she says “Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.” Abigail herself has acted out of envy for the entire play. Her jealousy of Elizabeth Proctor’s position as John’s wife has led her to attempted murder, first by the charm in the woods and now by accusing Elizabeth of witchcraft.
Elizabeth is a victim of cruel irony in this Act when she is summoned to testify on the reasons why she dismissed Abigail from her household. John has already confessed that the affair was the reason for Abigail’s dismissal. John tells the judge to summon Elizabeth to back him up because he knows she always tells the truth. Ironically, though she is normally honest to a fault, in this situation Elizabeth decides to lie to preserve John’s reputation, not knowing he has already confessed. This well-intentioned mistake seals both of their fates.
Act 4 is Danforth’s turn to shine in the irony department. He is appalled by Elizabeth’s lack of emotion when he asks her to help the court get a confession out of her husband (pg. 123). This attitude comes from a man who has shown no remorse for condemning people to death throughout the play. He refers to John’s refusal to confess as “a calamity,” looking past his own involvement in the larger calamity of the conviction that led John to this point.
Later in Act 4, Danforth becomes angry at the implication that John’s confession may not be the truth. He insists, “I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie” (pg. 130). Of course, we know that Danforth has been trading people’s lives for lies this whole time. He has sentenced people to death based on lies about their dealings in black magic, and he has accepted other false confessions from those who would rather lie than be executed. To Danforth, anything that doesn’t confirm that he was right all along is a lie.
Here are a few questions related to this theme that you can use to test your grasp of irony and its significance as a theme in The Crucible:
- How is Parris’ fate in act 4 ironic when considering his role in the events of the play?
- Why do certain characters seem to be blind to the irony of their actions (Abigail, Danforth)?
- Why is hypocrisy so common in repressive communities like Salem?
- Explain the irony of Hale’s position at the end of the play as compared to his actions at the beginning.
Hale wrongly assumes that his academic mindset will save him from jumping to the wrong conclusions in the witchcraft investigation. Ironically, he is the first to demand a confession from Tituba based on Abigail's dramatic but false testimony.
Theme 2: Hysteria
The thematic significance of hysteria builds quickly as accusations of witchcraft proliferate throughout Salem. The power of collective hysteria ultimately becomes insurmountable because it grows larger than the influence of the few rational voices in the community. The seeds are planted in Act 1, when Abigail is questioned about her activities in the woods and ends up accusing Tituba of witchcraft to avoid punishment. The town, already primed with rumors of black magic, is quickly willing to accept that the first few women who are accused are involved in black magic because they’re beggars and slaves. No one considers that the accusers are lying, partially because they’re seen as innocent children and partially because many “witches” confess to avoid the death penalty.
Armed with the false proof of these coerced confessions, the court officials aggressively persecute anyone who is accused. Hysteria blinds the people of Salem to reason as they become convinced that there is a grand Satanic plot brewing in town, and they must not hesitate to condemn anyone who could be involved. This is a lesson in how fear can twist perceptions of reality even for those who consider themselves reasonable under normal circumstances.
Even before Abigail makes accusations, rumors of witchcraft have morphed into accepted truths in the minds of the more superstitious members of the community. Ann Putnam jumps at any opportunity to blame supernatural forces for the deaths of her children. Ann’s extreme conclusions are gradually accepted because rational people are too afraid to challenge the consensus and risk bringing accusations upon themselves. Hale’s involvement is taken to mean that there must be a supernatural element to Betty’s illness. Rational explanations are ground up by the drama of the rumor mill, and people see only what they want to see (whatever keeps them in the good graces of society and makes them feel the best about themselves) in situations that don't appear to have easy explanations.
The madness begins in earnest with Abigail’s claim that Tituba and Ruth were conjuring spirits in the woods. Parris is extremely dismayed by this revelation because of the damage it will do to his reputation. Thomas Putnam tells him to “Wait for no one to charge you - declare it yourself.” Parris must rush to be the first accuser so he can place himself beyond reproach. It's a toxic strategy that causes panic to spread quickly and fear for one’s life to take the place of rationality. Tituba is pressured to confess and name the names of other “witches” to avoid execution, which leads to Abigail and Betty’s accusations, now validated by a coerced confession. This vicious cycle continues to claim the lives of more and more people as the play progresses.
By Act 2, there are nearly 40 people in jail accused of witchcraft. Many people confess when threatened with execution, and this only heightens the paranoid atmosphere. The authorities ignore any inconvenient logical objections to the proceedings because they, too, are swept up in the madness. The hysterical atmosphere and the dramatic performances of some of the accusers cause people to believe they have seen genuine proof of witchcraft. Each new false confession is thrown onto the pile of “evidence” of a grand Satanic plot, and as the pile grows larger, the hysteria surrounding it is fed generously.
This hysteria-based “evidence” of witchcraft includes the discovery of the poppet in the Proctor household with a needle in it. Elizabeth's side of the story is disregarded because Abigail’s testimony is far more dramatic. "She sat to dinner in Reverend Parris's house tonight, and without word nor warnin' she falls to the floor. Like a struck beast, he says, and screamed a scream that a bull would weep to hear. And he goes to save her, and, stuck two inches in the flesh of her belly, he draw a needle out." (Cheever pg. 71). The idea that a witch's familiar spirit is capable of stabbing people is too scary for the superstitious and now hysterical people of Salem to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt. No one even considers Mary's statement about sticking the needle in herself. In this environment, whoever yells the loudest seems to get the most credibility.
The depths of the hysteria that has gripped Salem are revealed in Act 3 when John finally confronts the court. Danforth makes a shocking argument defending the way the trials have been conducted, insisting that only the victim’s testimony can serve as reliable evidence in this type of trial. He is completely oblivious to the fact that the “victims” might be lying. The court refuses to challenge anyone who claims to have been afflicted.
When the petition testifying to the good character of the accused women is presented, the reaction from Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris is to arrest the people who signed it rather than considering that this might indicate that the women are innocent. Danforth is convinced that “there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!” and anyone who doubts the decisions of the court is potentially involved. They so fear the devilish consequences of challenging the accusers that they’re willing to take them at their word and ignore any defenses the accused have to offer. Nowhere is there any consideration of ulterior motives.
The power of mass hysteria is further revealed when Mary is unable to faint outside of a charged courtroom environment. She believed she had seen spirits earlier because she was caught up in the delusions of those around her. Abigail distracts the judges from any rational investigation in this act by playing into this hysteria. Danforth, who has the most authority, is also the most sold on her act, and it only takes a few screams to persuade him that he’s in the presence of witchcraft. This leads to Mary’s hysterical accusation of Proctor after she finds herself targeted by the other girls and about to be consumed by the hysteria herself if she doesn’t contribute to it.
Danforth continues to demonstrate the effects of hysteria in act 4 even after things have died down a bit in Salem and there have been rumblings of discontent about the court’s actions. As John gives his confession, Danforth says to Rebecca Nurse “Now, woman, you surely see it profit nothin’ to keep this conspiracy any further. Will you confess yourself with him?” (pg. 129) He is still convinced that all the prisoners are guilty and is determined to force them to admit their guilt.
Danforth also becomes frustrated with Proctor when he won’t name names in his confession: “Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw [Rebecca Nurse] with the Devil” (pg. 130). Danforth insists that John must know more about the Devil's dealings than he has revealed. Though Rebecca Nurse's involvement has already been corroborated by other confessors, Danforth demands to hear it from John to confirm that John is fully committed to renouncing his supposed ties to Satan.
Here are a few questions about hysteria to consider now that you've read a summary of how this theme was expressed throughout the plot of the play:
- How does thehysteria in theplay get started?
- What are some of the factors that feed the panic and suspicion in Salem, and why areofficials (like Danforth) unable or unwilling to listen to reason?
- Is there any character besides John Proctor that represents the voice of common sense amidst the madness?
- Why is Cheever both astonished and afraid when he finds the poppet with the needle in it? Why is everyone so quick to believe Abigail’s story?
- Danforth explains that witchcraft is an invisible crime and that only the victims are reliable. How does this philosophy perpetuate hysteria?
Even though there is significant reason to believe Abigail is lying about Elizabeth's familiar spirit stabbing her, the frenzied investigators ignore testimony that challenges their chosen witchy narrative.
Theme 3: Reputation
Concern for reputation is a theme that looms large over most of the events in The Crucible. Though actions are often motivated by fear and desires for power and revenge, they are also propped up by underlying worries about how a loss of reputation will negatively affect characters' lives. John’s concern for his reputation is strong throughout the play, and his hesitation to reveal Abigail’s true nature is a product of his own fears of being labeled an adulterer.
Once there have been enough convictions, the reputations of the judges also become factors. They are extremely biased towards believing they have made the correct sentencing decisions in court thus far, so they are reluctant to accept new evidence that may prove them wrong. The importance placed on reputation helps perpetuate hysteria because it leads to inaction, inflexibility, and, in many cases, active sabotage of the reputations of others for selfish purposes. The overall message is that when a person's actions are driven by desires to preserve favorable public opinion rather than do the morally right thing, there can be extremely dire consequences.
Reverend Parris' concerns about his reputation are immediately evident in Act 1. Parris initially insists that there are “no unnatural causes” for Betty’s illness because he fears that he will lose favor with the townspeople if witchcraft is discovered under his roof. He questions Abigail aggressively because he’s worried his enemies will learn the full story of what happened in the woods first and use it to discredit him. Parris is very quick to position himself on the side of the accusers as soon as Abigail throws the first punch, and he immediately threatens violence on Tituba if she doesn't confess (pg. 42). He appears to have no governing system of morality. His only goal is to get on the good side of the community as a whole, even in the midst of this bout of collective hysteria.
Abigail also shows concern for her reputation. She is enraged when Parris questions her suspicious dismissal from the Proctor household. Abigail insists that she did nothing to deserve it and tries to put all the blame on Elizabeth Proctor. She says, "My name is good in the village! I will not have it said my name is soiled! Goody Proctor is a gossiping liar!" (pg. 12) The first act of The Crucible clearly establishes the fact that a bad reputation can damage a person’s position in this society severely and irreparably.
In this act, we learn more details about the accused that paint a clearer picture of the influence of reputation and social standing on the patterns of accusations. Goody Good, an old beggar woman, is one of the first to be named a witch. It’s easy for more respectable citizens to accept that she’s in league with the Devil because she is an "other" in Salem, just like Tituba. When Abigail accuses Elizabeth, a respected farmer’s wife, it shows that she is willing to take big risks to remove Elizabeth from the picture. She’s not a traditionally accepted target like the others (except in her susceptibility as a woman to the misogyny that runs rampant in the play).
In Act 2, the value of reputation in Salem starts to butt heads with the power of hysteria and fear to sway people’s opinions (and vengeance to dictate their actions). Rebecca Nurse, a woman whose character was previously thought to be unimpeachable, is accused and arrested. This is taken as evidence that things are really getting out of control ("if Rebecca Nurse be tainted, then nothing's left to stop the whole green world from burning." Hale pg. 67). People in power continue to believe the accusers out of fear for their own safety, taking the hysteria to a point where no one is above condemnation.
At the end this act, John Proctor delivers a short monologue anticipating the imminent loss of the disguises of propriety worn by himself and other members of the Salem community. The faces that people present to the public are designed to garner respect in the community, but the witch trials have thrown this system into disarray. Proctor’s good reputation is almost a burden for him at this point because he knows that he doesn’t deserve it. In a way, John welcomes the loss of his reputation because he feels so guilty about the disconnect between how he is perceived by others and the sins he has committed.
John Proctor sabotages his own reputation in Act 3 after realizing it's the only way he can discredit Abigail. This is a decision with dire consequences in a town where reputation is so important, a fact that contributes to the misunderstanding that follows. Elizabeth doesn’t realize that John is willing to sacrifice his reputation to save her life. She continues to act under the assumption that his reputation is of the utmost importance to him, and she does not reveal the affair. This lie essentially condemns both of them.
Danforth also acts out of concern for his reputations here. He references the many sentencing decisions he has already made in the trials of the accused. If Danforth accepts Mary’s testimony, it would mean that he wrongly convicted numerous people already. This fact could destroy his credibility, so he is biased towards continuing to trust Abigail. Danforth has extensive pride in his intelligence and perceptiveness. This makes him particularly averse to accepting that he's been fooled by a teenage girl.
Though hysteria overpowered the reputations of the accused in the past two acts, in act 4 the sticking power of their original reputations becomes apparent. John and Rebecca’s solid reputations lead to pushback against their executions even though people were too scared to stand up for them in the midst of the trials. Parris begs Danforth to postpone their hangings because he fears for his life if the executions proceed as planned. He says, “I would to God it were not so, Excellency, but these people have great weight yet in the town” (pg. 118).
However, this runs up against Danforth’s desire to preserve his reputation as a strong judge. He believes that “Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering” (pg. 119). Danforth’s image is extremely valuable to him, and he refuses to allow Parris’ concerns to disrupt his belief in the validity of his decisions.
In the final events of Act 4, John Proctor has a tough choice to make between losing his dignity and losing his life. The price he has to pay in reputation to save his own life is ultimately too high. He chooses to die instead of providing a false confession because he doesn’t think life will be worth living after he is so disgraced. As he says, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (pg. 133)
Here are a few discussion questions to consider after you've read my summary of how the theme of reputation motivates characters and plot developments in The Crucible:
- How are characters’ behaviors affected by concern for their reputations? Is reputation more important than truth?
- Why doesn’t John immediately tell the court that he knows Abigail is faking?
- How does Parris’ pride prevent him from doing anything to stop the progression of events in the play?
- Why does Mary Warren warn John about testifying against Abigail? Why does he decide to do so anyways?
- Why does John decide to ruin his reputation in Act 3 by confessing to the affair?
- How is the arrest of Rebecca Nurse a sign that the hysteria in Salem has gotten out of control?
- How does reputation influence who is first accused of witchcraft?
If you're an old beggar woman who sometimes takes shelter in this creepy shack, you better believe these jerks are gonna turn on you as soon as anyone says the word "witch."
Theme #4: Power and Authority
The desire to preserve and gain power pervades The Crucible as the witch trials lead to dramatic changes in which characters hold the greatest control over the course of events. Abigail’s power skyrockets as the hysteria grows more severe. Where before she was just an orphaned teenager, now, in the midst of the trials, she becomes the main witness to the inner workings of a Satanic plot. She has the power to utterly destroy people’s lives with a single accusation because she is seen as a victim and a savior.
The main pillars of traditional power are represented by the law and the church. These two institutions fuse together in The Crucible to actively encourage accusers and discourage rational explanations of events.The girls are essentially given permission by authority figures to continue their act because they are made to feel special and important for their participation. The people in charge are so eager to hold onto their power that if anyone disagrees with them in the way the trials are conducted, it is taken as a personal affront and challenge to their authority. Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris become even more rigid in their views when they feel they are under attack.
As mentioned in the overview, religion holds significant power over the people of Salem. Reverend Parris is in a position of power as the town's spiritual leader, but he is insecure about his authority. He believes there is a group of people in town determined to remove him from this position, and he will say and do whatever it takes to retain control. This causes problems down the line as Parris allows his paranoia about losing his position to translate into enthusiasm for the witch hunt.
Abigail, on the other hand, faces an uphill battle towards more power over her situation. She is clearly outspoken and dominant, but her initial position in society is one of very little influence and authority. One path to higher standing and greater control would be in becoming John Proctor’s wife. When she can’t get John to abandon Elizabeth for her, she decides to take matters into her own hands and gain control through manipulating the fears of others.
Abigail accuses Tituba first because Tituba is the one person below her on the ladder of power, so she makes an easy scapegoat. If Tituba was permitted to explain what really happened, the ensuing tragedy might have been prevented. No one will listen to Tituba until she agrees to confirm the version of events that the people in traditional positions of authority have already decided is true, a pattern which continues throughout the play. Tituba is forced to accept her role as a pawn for those with greater authority and a stepping stone for Abigail’s ascent to power.
By Act 2, there have been notable changes in the power structure in Salem as a result of the ongoing trials. Mary Warren’s sense of self-importance has increased as a result of the perceived value of her participation in court. Elizabeth notes that Mary's demeanor is now like that of “the daughter of a prince” (pg. 50). This new power is exciting and very dangerous because it encourages the girls to make additional accusations in order to preserve their value in the eyes of the court.
Abigail, in particular, has quickly risen from a nobody to one of the most influential people in Salem. Abigail’s low status and perceived innocence under normal circumstances allow her to claim even greater power in her current situation. No one thinks a teenage orphan girl is capable of such extensive deception (or delusion), so she is consistently trusted. In one of the most well-known quotes in the play, John Proctor angrily insists that “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom” (pg. 73), meaning the girls are testing out the extent of the chaos they can create with their newfound power.
In Act 3, Abigail’s power in the courthouse is on display. She openly threatens Danforth for even entertaining Mary and John's accusations of fraud against her. Though Danforth is the most powerful official figure in court, Abigail manipulates him easily with her performance as a victim of witchcraft. He's already accepted her testimony as evidence, so he is happy for any excuse to believe her over John and Mary.
John finally comes to the realization that Mary's truthful testimony cannot compete with the hysteria that has taken hold of the court. The petition he presents to Danforth is used as a weapon against the signers rather than a proof of the innocence of Elizabeth, Martha, and Rebecca. Abigail's version of events is held to be true even after John confesses to their affair in a final effort to discredit her. Logic has no power to combat paranoia and superstition even when the claims of the girls are clearly fraudulent. John Proctor surrenders his agency at the end of Act 3 in despair at the determination of the court to pursue the accusations of witchcraft and ignore all evidence of their falsehood.
By Act 4, many of the power structures that were firmly in place earlier in the play have disintegrated. Reverend Parris has fallen from his position of authority as a result of the outcomes of the trials. He is weak and vulnerable after Abigail's theft of his life's savings, and he’s even facing death threats from the townspeople as a result of John and Rebecca's imminent executions. In Act 1 he jumped on board with the hysteria to preserve his power, but he ended up losing what little authority he had in the first place (and, according to Miller's afterward, was voted out of office soon after the end of the play).
The prisoners have lost all faith in earthly authority figures and look towards the judgment of God. The only power they have left is in refusing to confess and preserving their integrity. In steadfastly refusing to confess, Rebecca Nurse holds onto a great deal of power. The judges cannot force her to commit herself to a lie, and her martyrdom severely damages their legitimacy and favor amongst the townspeople.
Here are some discussion questions to consider after reading about the thematic role of the concepts of power and authority in the events of the play:
- How do the witch trials empower individuals who were previously powerless?
- How does Reverend Hale make Tituba feel important?
- Compare and contrast three authority figures in this drama: Hale, Danforth, and Parris. What motivates their attitudes and responses toward the witch trials?
- What makes Danforth so unwilling to consider that the girls could be pretending?
- Why does Mary Warren behave differently when she becomes involved in the trials?
- How do the actions of authority figures encourage the girls to continue their accusations and even genuinely believe the lies they’re telling?
Mary Warren when she comes back from Salem in Act 2
A Quick Look at Some Other The Crucible Themes
These are themes that could be considered subsets of the topics detailed in the previous sections, but there's also room to discuss them as topics in their own right. I'll give a short summary of how each plays a role in the events of The Crucible.
The theme of guilt is one that is deeply relevant to John Proctor's character development throughout the play. John feels incredibly ashamed of his affair with Abigail, so he tries to bury it and pretend it never happened. His guilt leads to great tension in interactions with Elizabeth because he projects his feelings onto her, accusing her of being judgmental and dwelling on his mistakes. In reality, he is constantly judging himself, and this leads to outbursts of anger against others who remind him of what he did (he already feels guilty enough!). Hale also contends with his guilt in act 4 for his role in condemning the accused witches, who he now believes are innocent.
There's a message here about the choices we have in dealing with guilt. John attempts to crush his guilt instead of facing it, which only ends up making it an even more destructive factor in his life. Hale tries to combat his guilt by persuading the prisoners to confess, refusing to accept that the damage has already been done. Both Hale and Proctor don't want to live with the consequences of their mistakes, so they try to ignore or undo their past actions.
Misogyny and Portrayal of Women
Miller's portrayal of women in The Crucible is a much-discussed topic. The attitudes towards women in the 1950s, when the play was written, are evident in the roles they're given. The most substantial female character is Abigail, who is portrayed as a devious and highly sexualized young woman. She is cast as a villain. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have Rebecca Nurse. She is a sensible, saintly old woman who chooses to martyr herself rather than lie and confess to witchcraft. The other two main female characters, Elizabeth and Mary Warren, are somewhat bland. Elizabeth is defined by her relationship to John, and Mary is pushed around by other characters (mostly men) throughout the play. The Crucible presents a view of women that essentially reduces them to caricatures of human beingsthat are defined by their roles as mothers, wives, and servants to men. Abigail, the one character who breaks from this mold slightly, is portrayed extremely unsympathetically despite the fact that the power dynamic between her and John makes him far more culpable in their illicit relationship.
Deception is a major driving force in The Crucible. This includes not only accusatory lies about the involvement of others in witchcraft but also the lies that people consistently tell about their own virtuousness and purity in such a repressive society. The turmoil in Salem is propelled forward by desires for revenge and power that have been simmering beneath the town's placid exterior. There is a culture of keeping up appearances already in place, which makes it natural for people to lie about witnessing their neighbors partaking in Satanic rituals when the opportunity arises (especially if it means insulating themselves from similar accusations and even achieving personal gain). The Crucible provides an example of how convenient lies can build on one another to create a universally accepted truth even in the absence of any real evidence.
Even before the witch trials, the people of Salem are doing lots of little magic tricks to make all their unholy thoughts and actions disappear. AbracaDENIAL!
How to Write About The Crucible Themes
It's one thing to understand the major themes in The Crucible, and it's another thing completely to write about them yourself. Essay prompts will ask about these themes in a variety of different ways. Some will be very direct. An example would be something like:
"How are themes like hysteria, hunger for power, reputation, or any of a number of others functional in the drama? Choose a single character and discuss how this person embodies one of the themes. How is Miller’s underlying message revealed in one of these themes and through the character?"
In a case like this, you'd be writing directly about a specific theme in connection to one of the characters. Essay questions that ask about themes in this straightforward way can be tricky because there's a temptation to speak in vague terms about the theme's significance. Always include specific details, including direct quotes, to support your argument about how the theme is expressed in the play.
Other essay questions may not ask you directly about the themes listed in this article, but that doesn't mean that the themes are irrelevant to your writing. Here's another example of a potential essay question for The Crucible that's less explicit in its request for you to discuss themes of the play:
"Most of the main characters in the play have personal flaws and either contribute to or end up in tragedy. Explain who you believe is the central tragic character in the play. What are their strengths and personal flaws? How does the central tragic character change throughout the play, and how does this relate to the play's title? How do outside forces contribute to the character's flaws and eventual downfall?"
In this case, you're asked to discuss the concept of a tragic character, explaining who fits that mold in The Crucible and why. There are numerous connections between the flaws of individual characters and the overarching themes of the play that could be brought into this discussion. This is especially true with the reputation and hysteria themes. If you argued that John Proctor was the central tragic character, you could say that his flaws were an excessive concern for his reputation and overconfidence in the power of reason to overcome hysteria. Both flaws led him to delay telling the truth about Abigail's fraudulent claims and their previous relationship, thus dooming himself and many others to death or imprisonment. Even with prompts that ask you to discuss a specific character or plot point, you can find ways to connect your answer to major themes. These connections will bolster your responses by positioning them in relation to the most important concepts discussed throughout the play.
Now that you've read about the most important themes in The Crucible, check out our list of every single character in the play, including brief analyses of their relationships and motivations.
You can also read my full summary of The Crucible here for a review of exactly what happens in the plot in each act.
The Crucible is commonly viewed as an allegorical representation of the communist "witch hunts" conducted in the 1950s. Take a look at this article for details on the history and thematic parallels behind this connection.
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Who are The Crucible characters? What do they do and when do they show up in the play? Find out in this overview of the characters in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
In this article, I'll go over each of the Crucible characters by name, pinpoint which act(s) each character appears in and/or is mentioned in, and briefly describe each character and what she/he does in The Crucible.
Central Cast of The Crucible
To start off with, I'll discuss the seven characters in The Crucible who are integral to the plot of the drama: John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Giles Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Reverend Hale, and Elizabeth Proctor. For each of these characters, you'll get an overview of their relationships with other characters in the play, a short description of their personality, and a rundown of the actions they take throughout the play.
John Proctor is the central character whom the drama of The Crucible revolves around. This primacy is helped by the fact that he has relationships with many of the other characters in the play: Proctor is husband to Elizabeth Proctor, former (adulterous) lover of Abigail Williams, employer of Mary Warren, friend of Giles Corey and Francis Nurse (and by extension their wives), and not a fan (though not precisely an enemy) of Reverend Parris. Proctor is described by Miller as “respected and even feared in Salem,” having “a sharp and biting way with hypocrites” even though he “regards himself as a kind of a fraud” (p. 19) due to his affair with Abigail Williams.
Act 1: We find out that Proctor had an affair with Abigail that he says he no longer wishes to continue. Proctor is skeptical of witchcraft and of Parris's claims of persecution and leaves shortly after Reverend Hale arrives at the Parris household.
Act 2: Elizabeth and John discuss the events that have been happening in Salem; Elizabeth encourages John to tell the court what Abigail told him about the girls faking it, which triggers a discussion about John's affair with Abigail and his continuing guilt about it. Over the course of the act, Proctor becomes frightened of the power the girls have with their accusations, especially once his wife is arrested for witchcraft.
Act 3: Proctor goes to court to fight the charges against his wife and dispute the veracity of the girls' claims; he eventually ends up being accused of witchcraft himself.
Act 4: Tormented over whether or not to confess to witchcraft to save himself, Proctor ultimately ends up tearing up his signed confession and going to the gallows with what remains of his integrity intact.
For a deeper exploration of John Proctor’s character traits and actions, read our character analysis of him.
Also Known As: Abby Williams
Abigail is the niece of Reverend Parris and the cousin of Betty Parris. She also used to work as a servant with the Proctors, before she was sent away by Elizabeth Proctor for having an affair with Elizabeth's husband John. She is friends (or at least acquaintances) with Mercy Lewis and eventually becomes the ringleader of the "afflicted" girls (i.e. the girls who accuse people of being witches). Miller describes Abigail as "seventeen...a strikingly beautiful girl, an orphan, with an endless capacity for dissembling" (p. 8); in essence, he is calling her a pretty little liar.
Act 1: Abigail is accused by her uncle of dancing in the woods (possibly naked) and of being soiled; she vehemently denies this, but when he leaves Betty wakes and accuses Abigail of drinking a potion to kill Elizabeth Proctor. Eventually, Abigail manages to get out of being punished by first accusing Tituba of forcing her to drink the potion and then appearing to confess her bewitching and accusing others of witchcraft.
Act 2: We find out, first via Mary Warren and then via Ezekiel Cheever, that Abigail has accused Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft.
Act 3: Abigail is questioned about faking her symptoms and denounces it as a lie; she then leads the girls in a hysterical display against Mary Warren when Mary tries to discredit them and succeeds in influencing Mary to abandon her testimony.
Act 4: We hear from her uncle, Reverend Parris, that Abigail has run off with Mercy Lewis and some of her uncle’s money.
For more about Abigail Williams and her role in The Crucible, read our in-depth discussion of Abby, and our analysis of important Abigail Williams quotes.
Me? Accuse someone of witchcraft so I could marry her husband and run off with my uncle's money when that didn't work out? Whyever would you think such a thing?
Mary Warren is a servant to John and Elizabeth Proctor and part of the group of girls accusing people of witchcraft. Described by Miller as "seventeen, a subservient, naïve lonely girl" (p. 17), Mary is motivated both by her desire to be a part of "the great doings in the world" (p. 20) and her fears of getting in trouble (whether with Abigail or the Proctors).
Act 1: Mary shows up at the Parris household to confer with Abigail and Mercy about what's going on (since they were all dancing in the woods the night before).
Act 2: Mary arrives back at the Proctors' slightly more confident due to her role in the court; she brings Elizabeth a poppet she made and both the Proctors news of what has been happening in Salem and reveals that she managed to stave off one accusation of witchcraft against Elizabeth (although it turns out that after Mary left, Elizabeth was accused again). After Elizabeth is arrested and taken away, Mary is yelled at by John Proctor and told she has to testify in court about how she made the poppet, stuck a needle in it, and gave it to Elizabeth.
Act 3: Mary is bullied by John Proctor into testifying how there is nothing supernatural occurring in Salem. This ends up backfiring when she is accused of sending her spirit to torment the girls; eventually, Mary accuses Proctor himself of being a witch and returns to the fold of accusers.
Discover more about Mary Warren’s role in The Crucible with our character analysis of her.
Giles Corey is husband to Martha Corey and friends with John Proctor and Francis Nurse. A cantankerous old man who has no problem suing even his friends for perceived insults, Giles is described by Miller as "a crank and a nuisance, but withal a deeply innocent and brave man" (p. 38).
Act 1: Giles wanders into the Parris house to find out what’s going on. He tells Reverend Hale that he thinks it’s weird his wife Martha reads all the time and that whenever she reads, Giles has trouble praying (conveniently omitting the information that Giles has just started to go to church more regularly and so naturally would have difficulty remembering his prayers).
Act 2: Giles comes to the Proctors’ house along with Francis Nurse to report that both their wives have been arrested for witchcraft; he asks Proctor’s advice for what to do
Act 3: Giles storms into court to try to prove his wife isn’t a witch. He ends up being condemned for contempt of court when he won’t name the person who told him that Putnam’s daughter accused George Jacobs of being a witch in order to be able to purchase George Jacobs’ forfeited land.
Act 4: We learn via Elizabeth Proctor that Giles was pressed to death (with stones on his chest) since he refused to answer the accusations against him one way or another so his property would stay in his family.
For a more detailed discussion of Giles Corey and what happened to him, read our dedicated Giles Corey character analysis.
Also Known As: Goody Nurse
Rebecca is married to Francis Nurse. She is friendly with everyone in Salem except for Ann Putnam, whose concerns over her daughter Ruth Rebecca kind of brushes off in Act 1.
Act 1: Rebecca comes over to the Parris household and tries to calm everyone down, saying it’s probably just girls being girls and not anything supernatural. When it becomes clear that everyone else wants to go ahead with the investigation of possible witchy causes for the girls’ behavior, she departs.
Act 2: The audience learns from Francis Nurse that Rebecca has been arrested for the murder of Ann Putnam’s seven children who died in infancy.
Act 3: The audience learns via Hale that Rebecca has been found guilty of witchcraft in court (p. 80).
Act 4: Rebecca is saddened to learn that John is going to confess to witchcraft, then uplifted when he decides not to; they both go to the gallows together.
For more discussion of the function of Rebecca Nurse in the play, make sure to read our complete analysis of Rebecca Nurse in The CrucibleThe Crucible.
Reverend John Hale
Reverend Hale is an "expert" on witchcraft, called in from Beverly by Reverend Parris as a precautionary measure (in case Betty Parris's affliction is supernatural in nature). Described by Miller at the beginning of the play as "nearing forty, a tight-skinned, eager-eyed intellectual," (p. 30), Hale changes over the course of the play from an idealist who believes he has the power to root out the Devil to a disillusioned man who realizes he has added to a hysteria and caused the deaths of innocents.
Act 1: Hale appears in response to Parris’s summons. Excited to use his specialized skills to hunt out the Devil, Hale ends up (inadvertently) pressuring Tituba into confessing until she names names.
Act 2: Hale comes to the Proctors to check in on them, since he’s heard some disturbing things about them (John doesn’t go to church often, Elizabeth was accused of being a witch that day, etc); he quizzes John on his commandments and is upset/shocked to hear that the girls might be faking their fits and lying to the court. He seems conflicted (“in great pain”) but still unwilling to completely accept how thoroughly he’s screwed everything up (p. 68).
Act 3: Hale ineffectually tries to stop the juggernaut he has set into motion; he now realizes that witchcraft isn’t as black and white as he thought because at least some of the accusations clearly stem from ulterior motivations and there's no evidence besides hearsay for convictions…but it’s too late. Storms off after Proctor is ordered to jail by Danforth (p. 111), denouncing the court and what it is doing.
Act 4: Hale has returned to Salem to try to get the accused witches to confess and save their lives so he can feel less guilty/accumulate less blood on his hands. He does not succeed.
Reverend Hale, by the end of The Crucible.
Reykjavik statue/used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Elizabeth Proctor is married to John Proctor. Elizabeth dislikes Abigail Williams, likely due to the fact that John Proctor committed adultery with Abigail. While Miller does not give Elizabeth any specific stage direction descriptions they way he does with many of the other characters, we learn through various bits of dialogue that Elizabeth had been sick the previous winter (p. 61).
Act 2: Elizabeth tries to urge her husband to go to town to tell everyone Abigail is a liar – first because it’s the right thing to do, then because she’s worried Abigail is going to accuse Elizabeth of being a witch in order to take her place in John’s life (and bed). She is disappointed that John met with Abigail alone and somehow failed to mention that detail to her, but is not allowed to defend herself because John’s internal guilt causes him to react angrily and volubly to her fears.
Elizabeth accepts a poppet from Mary and tries to protect Mary from John’s wrath at Mary's having neglected her duties at home to go off to the court and accuse people of witchcraft. At the end of the act, Elizabeth is arrested and taken in after it’s revealed Abigail called her out as a witch (after Mary Warren and Hale left for the day) and she has that damning poppet with a needle stuck in it.
Act 3: Elizabeth is brought into the court to confirm that Abigail Williams was dismissed from her position for sleeping with John Proctor, since John has boasted that Elizabeth never lies. In a crisis of faith, Elizabeth chooses to lie to protect her husband’s reputation; this unfortunately ends up having a negative effect as it undercuts John’s accusation that Abigail is accusing Elizabeth of being a witch in order to marry John.
Act 4: Elizabeth is asked by Danforth and Hale to convince John to confess to save his life; instead, she basically just acts as a sounding board while John agonizes over what to do. She also tearfully confesses that John Proctor is the best and that she shouldn’t have judged him because only he can judge himself, and tells him that whatever he chooses is okay by her (p. 127):
Do what you will. But let none be your judge. There be no higher judge under Heaven than Proctor is! Forgive me, forgive me, John—I never knew such goodness in the world! She covers her face, weeping.
When Parris and Hale try to get Elizabeth to stop John after he’s torn up his confession and is on his way to the gallows, she does not, stating, “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” (p. 134).
Other Salem Residents in The Crucible
Aside from the seven central Crucible characters listed above, there are also many other Salem residents who appear in this play. Whether they accuse others of being witches, are accused of being witches themselves, or are simply townspeople with an axe to grind against Reverend Parris, the characters below all contribute to move the action of the plot forward.
Reverend Samuel Parris
Reverend Parris is the father of Betty Parris, uncle of Abigail Williams, and minister of Salem. He is not portrayed in a positive light in this play, being described by Miller from the very beginning as someone who "cut a villainous path through history" who "believed he was being persecuted wherever he went." Through his actions and words, Parris "very little good to be said for him" (p. 3).
Act 1: Parris is worried that Betty is sick, so he has called on Dr. Griggs for medical care and sent for Reverend Hale for spiritual care. He questions Abigail about her dancing in the woods with Betty and Tituba and discusses how he thinks there are people plotting against him and his fears about how people will perceive him if witchcraft is discovered under his roof.
Act 3: Still self-important and petty, Parris accuses people who he perceives as a threat or who state they don't believe in witchcraft of lying or having "come to overthrow the court" (p. 82).
Act 4: Parris asks Danforth and Hathorne to meet him in jail to discuss the dangers attendant on hanging well-respected members of the community like Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor. Parris explains that he and Hale have been praying with the convicted witches and hoping they'll confess; for Parris, this is because the people about to hang are influential and so their deaths might cause trouble for him. He also mentions that Abigail has disappeared and seems to have stolen his life savings, which prompts Danforth to call him "a brainless man" (p. 117).
Parris also tells Danforth that he's been threatened as a result of his actions in the witch trials: “Tonight, when I open my door to leave my house – a dagger clattered to the ground” (p. 119), but Danforth does not seem to care.
Betty is the ten-year-old daughter of Reverend Parris and cousin to Abigail Williams...and doesn't get much more of a character description/development than that. She is the third person in Salem to accuse people of witchcraft (after Tituba and Abby). Other than a brief time onstage in Act 3 (when she chants in unison with the rest of the witch-accusing girls), Betty is only onstage during the opening act of the play.
During Act 1, Betty falls ill after dancing in the woods with Tituba and some of the other girls of the village (Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and Ruth Putnam). When she temporarily rouses from her stupor, Betty accuses Abigail of drinking a potion to kill Goody Proctor (p.18), before falling back into an inert state. Betty livens up again at the end of the act to chime in with her own hysterical accusations of witchcraft.
In her forties, Tituba is Reverend Parris’s slave that he brought with him from Barbados. She is devoted to Betty (p. 7, p. 41) but possibly harbors some resentment against Parris that comes out in her "confession" of witchcraft (p. 44):
TITUBA, in a fury: He say Mr. Parris must be kill! Mr. Parris no goodly man, Mr. Parris mean man and no gentle man, and he bid me rise out of my bed and cut your throat! They gasp. But I tell him “No! I don’t hate that man. I don’t want kill that man.” But he say, “You work for me, Tituba, and I make you free! I give you pretty dress to wear, and put you way high up in the air, and you gone fly back to Barbados!”
Various townspeople (Abigail, Mrs. Putnam) seem to think that Tituba also can "conjure" spirits, which at some points it seems that Tituba herself may also believe ("Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. It’s you folks – you riles him up ‘round here; it be too cold ‘round here for that old Boy. He freeze his soul in Massachusetts, but in Barbados he just as sweet...", p. 113).
Act 1: Tituba tries to find out how "her beloved" Betty is doing, but Parris shoos her away; later, she is accused by Abigail of forcing the girls to do the Devil’s work. When pressured by Hale and Parris to confess and give the names of those who are abetting her, Tituba eventually does by naming Goody Good and Goody Osburn (the two women Putnam had previously suggested as witch candidates).
Act 4: Tituba is in the jail with Sarah Good, acting as if she very much believes in the Devil. She and Goody Good are hustled out by Herrick to make way for the judges.
Susanna works for Doctor Griggs and is described by Miller as "a little younger than Abigail, a nervous, hurried girl" (p. 8). Eventually, she joins in with Abigail, Betty, Mercy, and Mary as the "afflicted girls" who accuse others of witchcraft.
Act 1: Susanna tells Reverend Parris that Doctor Griggs is concerned Betty’s illness is supernatural in origin (p. 9).
Act 2: Susanna has become part of the group of accusers; is one of the people Mary Warren says would’ve witnessed Mary sewing the poppet in court (p. 72).
Act 3: Susanna joins in with Abigail and Mercy in accusing Mary Warren of bewitching them via Mary’s bird-shaped spirit (p. 107).
steve p2008/used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
Mercy is a servant to the Putnams and seems to be the particular caretaker of Ruth. She also appears friendly with Abigail Williams (which makes sense, as they were dancing in the woods together) and contemptuous of Mary Warren. Mercy is described by Miller as "a fat, sly,merciless [get it, get it, because her name is MERCY yet she shows no mercy] girl of eighteen" (p. 16).
Act 1: Mercy has come to the Parris house to find out what’s going on. She gets to confer with Abigail about getting their stories straight about what happened in the woods (since Mercy was apparently running around naked in the woods) before she's sent away to get Doctor Griggs for Ruth.
Act 3: Mercy is one of the girls in court who accuses Mary Warren of bewitching them via Mary’s bird-shaped spirit (p. 106).
Act 4: Parris says that he believes Mercy has run away with his niece, Abigail Williams (p. 116).
Mrs. Ann Putnam
Also Known As: Goody Putnam, Goody Ann
Ann Putnam is wife to Thomas Putnam and the mother of the afflicted Ruth (who we never see onstage) and seven other dead children (who we also never see onstage — because they're dead). There appears to be some friction between her and Rebecca Nurse, possibly because Rebecca Nurse has many living children and grandchildren while Ann only has the one child; it also seems that Rebecca may have chided Ann in the past for not being up to snuff (p. 36):
Let God blame me, not you, not you, Rebecca! I’ll not have you judging me any more!
Miller further describes Ann as being “a twisted soul of forty-five, a death-ridden woman, haunted by dreams” (p. 12). So clearly the woman has some issues.
Act 1: Ann comes to the Parris household to find out what’s going on and report that her daughter is being afflicted by something possibly supernatural. She knows that the cause of her daughter's illness is something supernatural because she sent her daughter to Tituba to find out (via supernatural means) who murdered Ann’s other seven children in infancy.
Ann is ready and willing to believe any explanation for why her children died except that it was natural causes (understandable for a grieving mother). She seizes eagerly upon Tituba’s saying that Goody Osburn was a witch, saying, “I knew it! Goody Osburn were midwife to me three times. I begged you, Thomas, did I not? I begged him not to call Osburn because I feared her. My babies always shriveled in her hands!” (p. 44).
Thomas Putnam is husband to Ann Putnam and father of the afflicted Ruth. Described by Miller as "a well-to-do, hard-handed landowner, near fifty" (p. 12) and "deeply embittered" with "a vindictive nature" (p. 14), Putnam has quarrels with nearly every major (male) character who appears onstage in this play. He dislikes Francis and Rebecca Nurse (since their family helped block Putnam’s candidate for minister), Reverend Parris (since he got the job instead of Putnam’s brother-in-law), John Proctor (because he is chopping down wood that Thomas Putnam believes rightfully belongs to him), and Giles Corey (because Corey accuses him of conspiring with his daughter Ruth to kill another man for his land).
Act 1: Putnam urges Parris to investigate possible supernatural causes of Betty’s (and his daughter Ruth’s) ailments. Miller intimates (via stage directions) that Putnam doesn’t necessarily believe in witchcraft – he just is looking for a way to gain power and/or make Parris do something dumb that he can then exploit: “at the moment he is intent upon getting Parris, for whom he has only contempt, to move toward the abyss” (p. 14).
Act 3: Putnam briefly shows up in court to say that Giles’ accusations against him are a lie (p.89).
Francis is the husband of accused witch Rebecca Nurse and friends with Giles Corey and John Proctor. Francis is described by Miller as "one of those men for whom both sides of the argument had to have respect," although "as he gradually paid for [the land he'd originally rented] and raised his social status, there were those who resented his rise" (p. 24). Basically, Francis is seen as a fair and upstanding citizen of Salem, although there are some who resent his social-climbing. Through one of Miller's character essays, we learn that Francis is part of the faction that opposed Thomas Putnam’s candidate for minister of Salem (p. 24), which led to bad feelings between the two families (that may have motivated the accusations of Rebecca as a witch).
Act 2: Francis lets the Proctors know his wife’s in jail and charged with supernatural murder (p. 67).
Act 3: Francis appears in court to present evidence of the girls’ fraud jointly with John Proctor and Giles Corey (p. 80); brings a petition signed by neighbors attesting to his wife’s good name that is then used by the court as a source for arrest warrants, much to Francis’s horror (p. 87)
Also Known As: Goody Good
The first woman to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, Sarah Good is described by Elizabeth Proctor as “Goody Good that sleeps in ditches” (p. 58).
Act 1: Thomas Putnam floats her name as a possible witch (p. 43); Tituba then picks up on this priming and names her as a co-conspirator (p. 44), followed shortly by Abby (p. 45)
Act 2: Mary Warren reports that Sarah Good confessed to attacking the girls supernaturally and so won’t hang; also, Sarah is pregnant at age 60.
Act 4: The first (and only) time Sarah Good appears onstage is at the beginning of this act: she is hanging out with Tituba in the jail, acting a little crazy, and seeming to see the Devil. It's unclear whether she thinks the Devil is real or if she’s just playing along at this point because she doesn't have anything to lose and won't be hanged since she's confessed and is pregnant.
The Court Officials
Besides the general residents of Salem, The Crucible also has the characters involved in the “legal” part of the witch trials and the “justice” system.
Cheever was originally an “honest tailor” (p. 69) but by the time of his appearance in the play (in Act 2) has become “a clerk of the court” (p. 68). Elizabeth that he "knows [John Proctor] well" (p. 50), but by the time of the trials it is clear that he is no longer held in quite as high esteem ("You'll burn for this, do you know it?", p. 69).
Act 2: Cheever comes to arrest Elizabeth Proctor on orders from the court; he is convinced of her guilt when he finds a poppet with a needle stuck in it (p. 70), and isn't willing to believe other explanations for it, even though Mary Warren clearly states that she's the one who made the poppet and stuck the needle in it.
Act 3: Cheever testifies about his experience with Goody Proctor and John Proctor in the previous Act (finding the poppet after Elizabeth denied keeping them, John ripping up the arrest warrant); though he prefaces his testimony with an apology to Proctor
Herrick is the marshal for the court system in Salem, which is to say that he is the person sent to gather up prisoners, stop people from leaving the court and from attacking other people in the court, and lead convicted witches to be hanged.
Act 2: Along with Cheever, Herrick comes to the Proctors' house to take Elizabeth Proctor away to the jail, as per orders of the court.
Act 3: Herrick vouches for John Proctor’s character (p. 86) and acts as the arm of the court (he stops Proctor from attacking Abigail, stops Abigail from leaving when she’s accused of whorishness, and is asked to take Proctor and Corey to jail).
Act 4: Herrick drunkenly clears Sarah Good and Tituba out of on cell of the jail to make way for the judges’ discussion with Parris and Hale. He also shepherds the prisoners (Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor, and Rebecca Nurse) back and forth between the cells, the main room, and (ultimately) the gallows.
Judge Hathorne is a Salem judge presiding over the witchcraft trials. Described by Miller in the stage directions as “a bitter, remorseless Salem judge” (p. 78), Hathorne lives up to that depiction in both word and deed – he shows no mercy to the accused witches or their families and is always willing to believe the worst of people. Judge Hathorne appears in Acts 3 and 4 of The Crucible.
Act 3: Hathorne is very concerned with all civilians showing the proper respect to the court and the law (although he's less shrill about it than Parris is).
Act 4: Hathorne comes to the jail to confer with Danforth; he is confused by and suspicious of why Hale is back, disapproves of Parris’s increasingly “unsteady” and wishy-washy demeanor (p. 115), and seems to think everyone is filled with “high satisfaction” (p. 117) at the hangings of the witches.
Fun fact: The character of Judge Hathorne is based on the historical Hathorne who was so reviled that his descendant, author Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables), changed the spelling of his last name to avoid being associated with him.
Deputy Governor Danforth
At the time of the events in the play, Danforth is the Deputy Governor of the entire Province (of Massachusetts). Danforth oversees all of the court proceedings in the play as the highest legal authority. He is described by Miller as "a grave man in his sixties, of some humor and sophistication that do not, however, interfere with an exact loyalty to his position and his cause" (p. 79). While no one in the play seems to like him, exactly, he does command respect from most of the characters, at least at first - as the play continues and it becomes clear that Danforth is more concerned about procedure than justice, characters (including Giles Corey and John Proctor) vocally display their loss of respect for Danforth.
Act 3: The audience first sees Danforth in his position as the presiding court judge for the witch trials. Danforth is not swayed by emotion but is swayed by the girls’ demonstrations of witchcraft (perhaps because he can see it with his own eyes, feel their clammy skin, etc). The combination of his dispassionate questioning and his belief in witchcraft means that what logically follows is him ordering the arrests of everyone who signed the petition affirming the good characters of Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey, holding Giles in contempt of court, and ordering Proctor’s arrest.
Act 4: Danforth fills the audience in on what has been going on in Salem between Acts 3 and 4. He continues to lack detectable emotions and base his decisions on legality (e.g. it wouldn’t be fair to postpone the hangings of these witches because we already hanged others) instead of morality (we should avoid killing people unless absolutely necessary and unless all other avenues have been exhausted). When he senses that John Proctor might not be entirely aboveboard in his confession, he warns that if Proctor is lying about being a witch, then he can't stop Proctor from hanging; when Proctor rips up his confession, Danforth feels no qualms about sending him to the gallows (p. 134):
Hang them high over the town! Who weeps for these, weeps for corruption! He sweeps out past them.
A guard at the Salem jail who helps Herrick clear Tituba and Goody Good out of the room to make way for Danforth in Act 4. Hopkins doesn’t even get a first name, and only has one line (p.113) - he's mostly there to announce Danforth's arrival.
Unseen Characters in The Crucible
There are several characters in The Crucible who don’t actually show up onstage but still play an important role in the play. In one case, a character actually has more lines from offstage (Martha Corey) than another character does onstage (Hopkins), while in other cases these offstage, unseen characters are used to move along the action of the play.
Martha Corey is the (third) wife of Giles Corey, accused of witchcraft directly by Walcott (and indirectly by Giles himself). We learn through Francis Nurse that Martha Corey is highly thought of in town - or at least, she was until she was accused of witchcraft (p. 67):
...Martha Corey, there cannot be a woman closer yet to God than Martha.
While Martha never appears onstage, she is mentioned in all four acts and has three offstage lines in Act 3.
Act 1: Giles first brings up his suspicions that Martha's bookishness is somehow causing him to falter at his prayers (despite the fact that he only started regularly going to church when he married her, and so "it didn't take much to make him stumble over [his prayers]" (p. 38).
Act 2: Giles reports that Martha's been taken away after Walcott accuses her of bewitching his pigs; Giles explains that he didn’t mean to imply his wife was a witch because she read books (even though that is absolutely what he implied).
Act 3: Martha is heard from offstage being questioned by Judge Hathorne about witchcraft at the opening of the act; later, she is mentioned as being one of two accused witches who 91 people declared their good opinion of in a petition (p. 86-87).
Act 4: Martha is mentioned as one of the accused witches Hale is trying to convince to confess; later, when John Proctor asks if Martha’s confessed, Elizabeth confirms that “[s]he will not” (p. 125).
The only surviving child of Thomas and Ann Putnam, Ruth, like Betty Parris, shows signs of being bewitched. According to Ruth's parents, Ruth was sent by her mother to Tituba to figure out who supernaturally murdered Ruth's seven dead infant siblings; this is no doubt the reason why Ruth "never waked this morning, but her eyes open and she walks, and hears naught, sees naught, and cannot eat" (p. 13). While she never appears onstage, Ruth (and her strange illness) is used in absentia to corroborate the presence of some supernatural evil in Salem during Act 1.
Ruth is only brought up again a couple of times during the rest of the play: in Act 3, the audience learns that Ruth is said to have accused George Jacobs of being a witch (p. 89), and that she is not in the court when John Proctor brings Mary Warren to confront the other girls (p. 94).
Also Known As: Goody Osburn
The name of Goody Osburn first comes up in Act 1, when she is suggested by Thomas Putnam as a possible witch (p. 43). This suggestion is then corroborated by the accusations of Tituba (p. 44) and Abigail Williams (p. 45). In Act 2, we learn that Good Osburn is the first witch to be condemned to hang in Salem (p. 54). We also learn that it's not all that surprising that someone would accuse Goody Osburn of being a witch, since she is “drunk and half-witted” (p.58).
In the first act of The Crucible, George Jacobs is named as a witch by Betty Parris (p. 45). His name briefly comes up in Act 2 as the owner of a heifer John Proctor is thinking about buying for his wife (p. 48), but it is not until Act 3 that he becomes more important. In Act 3, Giles Corey alleges that he's heard that Ruth Putnam accused George Jacobs of witchcraft because convicted witches forfeit their property, and the only person who has enough money to buy up that property just so happens to be Ruth’s father, Thomas Putnam (p. 89):
...the day [Putnam's] daughter cried out on Jacobs, he said she’d given him a fair gift of land...
The accusation that Ruth had basically handed her father George Jacobs' property by accusing him of witchcraft, however, is never brought to trial because Giles refuses to reveal the name of the person who told him about Putnam's words; therefore, George Jacobs becomes the indirect cause of Giles being arrested for contempt of court (and, ultimately, pressed to death).
Also Known As: Goody Bishop
Bridget Bishop is a tavern proprietor in Salem (p. 4) and is the first witch named by Abigail who wasn’t also named by Tituba (p. 45). Goody Bishop's main role in The Crucible is as a contrast to Rebecca Nurse; to illustrate how the people hanged earlier in the play were of lower moral character than those set to hang during Act 4, Parris mentions how Bridget “lived three year with Bishop before she married him” (p. 117).
Doctor Griggs is mentioned in Act 1 as the man Parris has consulted with to find out what’s wrong with Betty (p. 8) and in Act 2 as the man who confirms Sarah Good is pregnant (p. 56). He's also the employer of Susanna Walcott.
Other People Mentioned in The Crucible
In addition to all the characters who we've previously discussed, there are also several other people mentioned over the course of the play. Some of these names are useful to know because they give context to character relationships that shape how events unfold in The Crucible (for instance, James Bayley is the brother-in-law of Putnam who was passed over for minister of Salem due to opposition by other townspeople, including Francis Nurse, which causes bad blood between the two families). Some of the other names might be useful if your teacher asks you to list off people accused of witchcraft over the course of the play, or to list people who accused others of witchcraft.
Whatever the reason, if you want a list of every name mentioned in The Crucible, we're here for you: see below for the nittiest-of-the-grittiest table of all the named people in The Crucible.
Reports seeing Betty Parris flying.
Owns the barn over which Betty Parris is said to have flown.
Brother-in-law of Thomas Putnam who was prevented from becoming minister of Salem by “a faction” (including Francis Nurse & family).
Brother of Thomas Putnam who helped Thomas jail George Burroughs.
Minister of Salem jailed for debts he didn’t owe by Thomas and John Putnam (possibly out of spite because Burroughs became minister where Bayley wasn’t able to)
Signer of the first complaint against Rebecca Nurse; brother of Thomas Putnam.
Signer of the first complaint against Rebecca Nurse; brother of Thomas Putnam.
Accused of being a witch by Betty Parris.
Accused of being a witch by Betty Parris.
Accused of being a witch by Abigail Williams.
Accused of being a witch by Betty Parris.
Accused of being a witch by Abigail Williams.
Accused of being a witch by Betty Parris.
Accused of being a witch by Abigail Williams.
Son of Elizabeth and John Proctor. Is not the person who snared the rabbit eaten for dinner by John and Elizabeth in Act 2.
Father or other relative of Susanna Walcott. Accuses Martha Corey of witchcraft against his pigs.
Judge at the Salem witch trials.
Judge at the Salem witch trials.
Father of Mercy Lewis; reports he thought his daughter was staying over with Abigail Williams for a night.
Drunk Salem resident hanged as a witch; John Proctor is compared favorably to him.
Named by Elizabeth Proctor as someone who confessed to being a witch.
Named by Elizabeth Proctor as someone who confessed to being a witch.
Common Discussion Topics for The Crucible Characters
Now you know all about the characters in The Crucible. But what might you be asked about them? Here are some common essay questions/discussion topics about characters in The Crucible. Practice answering them for yourself to gain a deeper understanding of the play (even if your teachers don't end up asking you these specific questions).
- Choose a character who you think might represent a certain "type" of person. In your essay, argue which type of person this character represents. Use evidence from the play to support your claims. Be sure to explain why Arthur Miller might have chosen to have this character represent this type of person.
- Compare and contrast Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams. How is each woman affected by her position in the Puritan theocracy of Salem?
- How do different characters serve as foils for each other (e.g. Elizabeth and Abigail, Hale and Danforth)?
- How do characters change throughout the play, namely John Proctor, Mary Warren, and Reverend Hale?
- How does John and Elizabeth Proctor’s relationship drive the play?
- Choose one character from The Crucible. Then, argue whether their actions throughout the drama are selfish or sacrificial. Are they heroic or villainous?
- Was Proctor’s decision not to confess foolish or noble? Is John Proctor a tragic hero? Is The Crucible as a whole a tragedy?
- How does John Proctor’s dilemma change over the course of the play?
- Can we fully blame Abigail for the events in the play?
For more about how to write effectively about the characters of The Crucible, be sure to read our article on character analysis in The Crucible.
Looking for specific character analyses from The Crucible? We’ve got detailed guides to John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, Giles Corey, and Rebecca Nurse on our blog.
Want a rundown of the play's action? Then be sure to read our full plot summary of The Crucible.
Are you wondering, “What themes does this play cover? Is McCarthyism somehow involved?” Find out with our discussions of The Cruciblethemes and McCarthyism in The Crucible!
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