The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that was first produced in 1953, is based on the true story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Miller wrote the play to parallel the situations in the mid-twentieth century of Alger Hiss, Owen Latimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, and Senator McCarthy, if only suggestively. (Warshow 116) Some characters in the play have specific agendas carried out by their accusations, and the fact that the play is based on historical truth makes it even more intriguing.
The characters in this play are simple, common people. The accused are charged and convicted of a crime that is impossible to prove. The following witchcraft hysteria takes place in one of America's wholesome, theocratic towns, which makes the miscarriage of justice such a mystery even today. The reasons the villains select the people they do for condemnation are both simple and clear. All of the accusers have ulterior motives, such as revenge, greed, and covering up their own behavior. Many of the accusers have meddled in witchcraft themselves, and are therefore doubly to be distrusted. (Warshow 116) The court convicts the victims on the most absurd testimony, and the reader has to wonder how the judges and the townspeople could let such a charade continue.
The leading character of the play is John Proctor, a man who often serves as the only voice of reason in the play. He had an affair with Abigail Williams, who later charges his wife with witchcraft. Proctor is seemingly the only person who can see through the children's accusations. The reader sees him as one of the more "modern" figures in the trials because he is hardheaded, skeptical, and a voice of common sense. He thinks the girls can be cured of their "spells" with a good whipping. (Warshow 114) At the end of the play, Proctor has to make a choice. He can either confess to a crime he is innocent of to save himself from execution, or die proclaiming his innocence. He ends up choosing death because a false confession would mean implicating other accused people, including Rebecca Nurse. (Rovere 2632) Proctor feels she is good and pure, unlike his adulterous self, and does not want to tarnish her good name and the names of his other innocent friends by implicating them. (Warshow 117) By choosing death, Proctor takes the high road and becomes a true tragic hero. The reader feels that his punishment is unjust (especially since the crime of witchcraft is imagined and unprovable.) Because the trials take place in a Christian, American town, the reader must then wonder if anything like this could happen in his or her own time. This is particularly true of people who saw the play when it first came out, in the era of McCarthyism.
Ann and Thomas Putnam are two instigators of the witchcraft hysteria in the play. Ann Putnam is the one who first plants the idea that Betty is bewitched. Her motivation for lying is obvious; she needs to cover up her own behavior. After all, she had sent her daughter to Tituba to conjure up the dead in order to find out what happened to her dead babies. She can't have it said that she, a Christian woman, practices the pagan art with a slave from Barbados, or that her daughter's illness is her fault because she sent her to participate in the black art, so she blames others. (Warshow 113) Revenge is another motive of hers. Tituba's tricks led her to the conclusion that her babies were murdered while under the care of a midwife, Goody Osburn. Osburn is later accused of witchcraft. Ann Putnam's husband also influences her. (Rovere 2632)
Thomas Putman had nominated his wife's brother-in-law, James Bayley, to be the minister of Salem. He was qualified and the people voted him in, but a faction stopped his acceptance. Thomas Putnam felt superior to most people in the village, and was angry that they rejected his choice for minister. He was also involved in a land dispute with...