The Dual Historical Context of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. The primary historical context: Salem in 1692
II.1. The political situation in 17th century Massachusetts
II.2. Miller’s view of 17th century Puritanism
II.3. A comparison of historical and dramatic details

III. The secondary historical context: America in the 1950s
III.1. The McCarthy Era
III.2. The impact of McCarthyism on Miller’s personal life
III.3. The Reception of The Crucible in the 1950s

IV. A psychological approach to the events in 1692 and in the 1950s

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

As Arthur Miller states in his autobiography,[1] The Crucible has become his most frequently produced play. This great success of a conventional drama can certainly not be explained without regard to its political message. When the play was first performed in 1953, its audiences were quick to recognize the connections between the witch craze in 17th century Massachusetts and the American anti-communist hysteria of their own time. Like any literary text, The Crucible reflects the conditions under which it was produced, and Miller himself says that he could not have written it at any other time.[2] Since in this case parallels between the events in both times are extremely striking, it seems necessary for the understanding and interpretation of the play to explain its dual historical context.

At the same time, it would be wrong to interpret Miller’s drama against this background only. Or, as Reitz puts it: The Crucible ist kein Schlüsseldrama, das auf die vordergründige Aktualität von Wiedererkennungseffekten setzt und zu diesem Zweck Anhänger und Gegner McCarthys als Puritaner (...) kostümiert“.[3] Miklos Trocsanyi argues similarly, pointing out that

Miller was glad, when in the contemporary criticism (…) less and less mention was made of and parallel drawn between the witchcraft hysteria and McCarthyism. It meant that the deeper message was more and more appreciated.[4]

Finding out about this “deeper message” is what the analysis of the dual historical context aims at. Therefore this research paper will, after explaining the historical circumstances of both the Salem witch hunt and the American anticommunism under McCarthy, focus on parallel phenomena underlying the events in both times. This comparison, which will be made from a psychological point of view, is intended to reveal why Miller’s play “is presently being approached more and more frequently as a cultural and historical study rather than a political allegory”.[5]

II. The primary historical context: Salem in 1692

II.1. The political situation in 17th century Massachusetts

The witch hunt which served as a basis for Millers play took place in 1692 in Salem, a New England colony and village inhabited by Puritans. Shortly before it broke out, the colonists had suffered a cruel disillusionment. In 1684, England’s king Charles II recalled the charter that had enabled the settlers to govern themselves, and two years later a royal governor was appointed. Their independence of the English crown being lost, the people in Massachusetts felt betrayed. In 1688, after the English king had been deposed, the colonists threw off the imposed governor. Yet their hope that God would now restore their independence proved false. William III, successor of James II, sent as a new governor Sir William Phips. The results, Morgan points out, were fatal:

A gloom settled over the colony far deeper than the depression that greeted the coming of the first governor. Men who had been rescued from despair only to be plunged back again were in a mood to suspect some hidden evil that might be responsible for their woes (…); and when the girls of Salem Village produced visible and audible evidence of something vile and unsuspected, it was all too easy to believe them.[6]

Governor Phips arrived in Massachusetts in May 1692, when most of the people accused for witchcraft were already in prison. He established the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, which was presided by his deputy governor William Stoughton. The judges of this court, although willing to put an end to the witch craze, helped to make it spread throughout all of New England. They did this by convicting on the basis of spectral evidence, defined by Morgan as “evidence offered by a supposed victim of witchcraft to the effect that the devil tormenting him appeared in the shape of the accused”.[7] The accused could, to save their lives, do nothing but declare themselves guilty and, as a sign of repentance, name those who allegedly had bewitched them. Consequently, hundreds of people were suspected of witchcraft, 150 were arrested, 55 tortured until they confessed, and 19 executed.

When the executions stopped in the fall of 1692, this was not because people ceased to believe in witchcraft, but due to the fact that the reliability of spectral evidence was questioned. Governor Phips discharged all the remaining “witches”, and five years later Massachusetts established a day of fasting to repent for the killing of the innocent victims. In 1712, the excommunications were rescinded, and the government awarded financial compensation to those victims who were still alive.

II.2. Miller’s view of 17th century Puritanism

In the first act of his play, even before the action begins, Miller comments in some detail on Puritan living conditions in 17th century New England. He provides the Puritans almost exclusively with negative traits, mentioning “their self-denial, their purposefulness, their suspicion of all vain pursuits, (and) their hard-handed justice”.[8] Furthermore, he describes long-held hatreds of neighbors, greed for land, envy and thirst for revenge[9], and says that to the European world “the whole province was a barbaric frontier inhabited by a sect of fanatics”.[10]

However, the commentary does not conceal that “the people were forced to fight the land like heroes for every grain of corn”. Extremely hard living conditions and the fear of being menaced by Indian tribes are said to be the reasons why “no man had very much time for fooling around”.[11] It is explained that, if the Puritans based their society on repression, exclusion and prohibition, they did so to keep the community together and “to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies”.[12] The Puritan society was, according to the author’s commentary, based on a principle saying that “in unity (…) lay the best promise of safety”.[13] Against this background the importance of discipline and obedience seems obvious. Yet, by assigning to the Puritans a “predilection for minding other people’s business”,[14] Miller paints the picture of a society which is likely to generate suspicion among its members and in which any kind of individuality might be considered a danger.

Looking at how Miller portrays the Puritans, one cannot but see parallels to the idea of Puritanism predominating in the 19th century. In general, an ambiguous image of the first settlers was characteristic for this time. It contained, on the one hand, great respect for the noble founding fathers, who had managed to survive under extremely difficult living conditions, and who tried to follow their principle of constantly doing good. On the other hand, it reflected the idea of the narrow-minded religious fanatics, who would not accept any opinion differing from their own, and who would leave no room for individuality in their closely knit society.


[1] Arthur Miller, Timebends (London, 1987) 348.

[2] Arthur Miller, quoted in Robert A. Martin, “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Background and Sources,”

Critical Essays on Arthur Miller, ed. James J. Martine (Boston, 1979) 93.

[3] Bernhard Reitz, afterword, The Crucible, by Arthur Miller (Stuttgart, 1990) 216.

[4] Miklos Trocsanyi, “Two Views of American Puritanism: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Miller’s

The Crucible,” The Origins and Originality of American Culture, ed. Frank Tibor (Budapest, 1984) 70f.

[5] Martin, 93

[6] Edmund S. Morgan, “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the Salem Witch Trials: A Historian’s View.” The Golden and the Brazen World: Papers in Literature and History 1650-1800, ed. John M. Wallace (Berkeley, 1985) 183.

[7] Morgan, 182

[8] Miller 1990, 13

[9] cf. Miller 1990, 16

[10] Miller 1990, 8

[11] Miller 1990, 9

[12] Miller 1990, 15

[13] Miller 1990, 11

[14] Miller 1990, 10

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Dual Historical Context of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"
University of Münster  (Anglistics/ American Studies)
Advanced Seminar Modern American Drama
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
510 KB
Dual, Historical, Context, Arthur, Miller, Crucible, Advanced, Seminar, Modern, American, Drama
Quote paper
Kristin Hammer (Author), 2000, The Dual Historical Context of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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