The Crucible. Context. Miller said of The Crucible , ‘I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.’.
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Between 1300 and 1700 there was a steady rise in the numbers of witchcraft trials in all parts of Europe and European colonies. Hundreds of thousands of people were strangled, burned, drowned, and beheaded having been accused, tortured and tried as witches. The majority of these were women.
In between 1487 and 1520, twenty editions of the Malleus were published, and another sixteen editions were published between 1574 to 1669
The extensive publishing of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 launched centuries of witch-hunts in Europe, with estimates of between 600,000 to 9,000,000 people (mostly women) killed because they were accused as witches.
Its effects were even felt in the New World, where the last gasp of the Inquisition was felt in the English settlements in America (most notably in Salem, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials).
The idea of women armed with magical powers which were used against men was always around but not considered dangerous until the 1400s when Catholics and Protestants, because of their own infighting, became convinced that the devil was about to overturn Christianity. It was then that women, and their particular knowledge and experience of life, became thought of as being in league with the devil to overturn the established order of things – an order that, as trade and industry grew, was becoming increasingly male dominated.
References to wise and evil women are scattered throughout all traditional European tales. The traditional role of women in significant and mysterious areas of life such as attending births (midwives), healing (in the 1500s herbs, spells and charms were virtually the only medicine available) or laying out the dead may have been one reason for this.
The Crucible is the story of how the small community of Salem, Massachusetts is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice.
In 1692, Salem was divided into two distinct parts: Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Village (also referred to as Salem Farms) was actually part of Salem Town but was set apart by its economy, class, and character.
Residents of Salem Village were mostly poor farmers who made their living cultivating crops in the rocky terrain. Salem Town, on the other hand, was a prosperous port town at the center of trade with London. Most of those living in Salem Town were wealthy merchants.
Puritanism, however, was not only a historically specific phenomenon coincident with the founding of New England; it was also a way of being in the world--a style of response to lived experience--that has reverberated through American life ever since.
Puritanism was a religious reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late sixteenth century. Under siege from church and crown, it sent an offshoot in the third and fourth decades of the seventeenth century to the northern English colonies in the New World--a migration that laid the foundation for the religious, intellectual, and social order of New England.
Puritans stripped away the traditional trappings and formalities of Christianity which had been slowly building throughout the previous 1500 years. Theirs was an attempt to "purify" the church and their own lives.
A rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the public welfare
Collins English Dictionary
Sometimes an accusation is enough to destroy a life.
Miller said of The Crucible, ‘I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.’
But is was not just Salem he was talking about. He himself had lived through a witch hunt of a different kind. Some people feel that the play is just as much about modern American society and the witch-hunt known as the McCarthy era, as it is about seventeenth century Salem.
In the 1940s and 1950s, when Miller was a young writer, America became obsessed with the fear of communism. The government wanted to defeat communism in Russia and stop it spreading to other countries. Even within America, there was fear that communists were secretly trying to destroy the American way of life and were plotting to introduce communism.
As this fear and obsession grew, the American Senate, or parliament, started to pass laws to restrict the activities of communists. Senator Joe McCarthy was the main figure leading the anti-communist movement.
A Committee on UnAmerican Activities was set up. People were put on trial by the committee and had to answer questions about their personal lives, friends, work and political beliefs. They were asked to name other people. They were ‘blacklisted’ (prevented from getting jobs) if they refused to appear or if it was decided that they were communists. You could be labelled a communist if you had friends who were communists.
3 million names were passed on. This shows how fearful people must have been, to hand over the names of people they knew. It also shows how large the witch-hunt against communists was and how it gripped the whole nation.
Between May 1953 and October 1954, 6926 people working in government civil service jobs were fired because they were security risks.
Many writers, actors and film workers were called before the HUAC, including Arthur Miller. This is an extract from what he said before the committee:
MR ARENS: Tell us, if you please, sir, about those meetings with Communist Party writers which you said you attended in New York City. Can you tell us who was there when you walked into the room?
MR MILLER: Mr. Chairman, I understand the philosophy behind this question and I want you to understand mine. When I say this, I want you to understand that I am not protecting the Communists or the Communist Party. I am trying to, and I will, protect my sense of self. I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him. I take the responsibility for everything I have ever done, but I cannot take responsibility for another human being.
A vessel in which substances are heated to a high temperature
A melting pot
A severe trial or test