Question: Discuss the parallels between the Salem witch trials and the anti-Communism hearings in the 1950s. How are they similar? How are they different? Also, what are the advantages of using a historical incident as an indirect way of commenting on current events?
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Answer: The witch hunts of Salem are similar to the anti-Communism hearings of the 1950s in that they mostly relied on unsubstantiated claims that were essentially impossible to prove but that were accepted nevertheless. However, they differed in that Salem’s trials were a result of mass hysteria that started with the community as a whole while the anti-Communism tendencies were nurtured and instigated by the government. Miller used the historical incident because it was unequivocally acknowledged as a regrettable error by the prosecutors, and so he implied that the same was true of the hearings at the time.
Question: Reverend Hale’s character seems to undergo a profound shift in the second half of the play. How and why does he go from the forefront of the witch-hunt to someone who is increasingly skeptical of the court and ultimately denounces it?
Answer: Hale comes to Salem with the intention of finding concrete proof of witchcraft and using it to condemn the people guilty of the crime. However, as evidence fails to surface, he succumbs to the pressure and begins accepting the unsubstantiated testimonies of the villagers as sufficient grounds for the decision to be made. Hale only realizes the severity of his mistake once people start executing the alleged witches and is filled with remorse (Miller 105). He then laments his lack of power in court and the blood he has unwittingly spilled through his actions.
Question: Abigail is for the most part an unsympathetic character. However, in her brief confrontation with John Proctor in Betty Parris’s room, she breaks down in tears and credits him with taking her from her “sleep” and putting knowledge in her heart about the “pretense” of Salem. Discuss how this bright girl who seems so aware of the hypocrisy around her becomes someone who actually uses and manipulates that hypocrisy.
Answer: In the play, Abigail is a person who is not afraid to use any measures to achieve a goal that she desires. As such, once she realizes that declaring oneself a witch would provide one with status in Salem, she did so with the goal of attaining enough power to be with Proctor despite the perceived hindrances. Nevertheless, she is still a young girl with idealistic views, and although she can manipulate hypocrisy, she is ultimately aware of it and considers it wrong.
Question: Throughout the play, Mary Warren struggles with the question of what is right and wrong, and tries to do the right thing but ultimately succumbs to Abigail and her “visions.” Discuss the role of the girls in the play. Why are they the principal accusers? What might it have been like to fall under the influence of a girl like Abigail?
Answer: The girls are the principal accusers because it is their position of power. After being led along by Abigail, who declared herself a witch and the rest just accomplices, Mary Warren is presented with an opportunity to feel powerful herself and takes it. While the idea of witchcraft appeared alluring due to its forbidden nature, Mary knew it was dangerous and broke free of Abigail’s influence when she could.
Question: One of the most mysterious lines in the play is uttered by John Proctor at the end of Act Two as his wife Elizabeth is being hauled off to jail. Almost to himself, he says “we are only what we always were, but naked now.” What is he saying here?
Answer: John Proctor’s line means that the danger to everyone’s lives and the power granted by the ability to accuse people baselessly exposed the true natures of the inhabitants. People were put into circumstances where they could not trust each other and had the power to potentially kill with a few words, which let their base natures take control to ensure their survival with gruesome results.
Question: Discuss the ending. It is certainly somber; a number of innocent people have already died, and now the play’s central character, John Proctor, is off to face death, as well. However, there is hopefulness in one of Elizabeth’s final lines, “He have his goodness now.” Examine the balance of hope and tragedy in the ending.
Answer: The ending of the play is strongly tragic, as many innocent people have died as a result of the events. However, the executions have allowed some of the characters to wake up from the madness, realize the errors in their beliefs and actions, and hopefully become better people as a result. Reverend Hale and John Proctor serve as examples, as they change for the better, even if the latter is executed shortly after. Elizabeth’s words refer to this transformation, as she sees that John is now at peace with himself.
Question: Finally, discuss the play’s ongoing relevance. Is a contemporary witch-hunt a real possibility? If so, what kind of “scare” might it bring about?
Answer: The play is relevant in modern times because mass hysteria still manifests itself occasionally. The recent emergence of ISIS can serve as an example, as it has influenced the public perception of Muslims. Other issues can include matters such as racism, which has been known to affect the police’s attitudes toward suspects. As long as the world remains separated into numerous groups that do not fully understand each other, the play will stay relevant.
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Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Heinemann, 1992.