Teaching the Crucible in High Schools
A Short Summary of the Crucible
The town of Salem is rocked by scandal as young girls are caught dancing in the woods with a local slave woman. When one of the girls takes sick, witchcraft is rumored. Townspeople see this as an opportunity for revenge as old grudges are settled by a witch craft accusation. Those who deny being a witch are hanged. Those who confess are set free. Caught up in the excitement, the town celebrates each hanging as a triumph of justice, until two of the town's most respected citizens are accused. Will they confess to save themselves or will they go to the gallows as innocent victims?
Arthur Miller is acknowledged as one of the United States' foremost writers of drama. The Crucible, along with The Death of a Salesman, are his two most critically acclaimed. When teaching The Crucible you may find the following topics worthy of discussion:
- Extremism: The colony of Massachussettes was ruled by a religious oligarchy holding total power. Justice flees along with common sense as town rulers become blinded by their authority.
- Revenge: Old grudges are renewed as petty differences lead to death.
- Superstition: Witches, goblins, spells, curses, and other such nonsense send fear through the town of Salem.
- Marriage: Mr. and Mrs. Proctor attempt to salvage a marriage damaged by an adulterous affair.
- The Role of Religion: Anti-religionists cite the Salem Witch Trials for their case against organized religion. More accurately, the Salem Witch Trials shows what happens when the few, regardless of religion, rule the many.
- Lust: The play's back story involves the adulterous interlude between John Proctor, a repentant adulterer, and Abigail Williams, the main accuser and mastermind behind the accusations.
- The Bill of Rights: Basic rights are violated by town officials, including the separation of church and state, and right to a fair trial. Although the U.S. Constitution did not become law for another 200 years, it's important to note that Miller wrote the play as an indictment of McCarthyism, which took place in the 1950s.
When teaching The Crucible you may want to teach the following literary devices:
- Irony: The theocratic government relies on the testimony of sinners against the town's respected citizens. If the accused confess, they are set free; if they deny the accusation, they are hanged.
- Suspense: Arthur Miller uses foreshadowing, pacing, and dangerous action to create suspense.
- The Elements of Tragedy: The Crucible contains the elements of tragedy.
- Character Motivation: The play delves into what motivates the accusers to cry witchcraft. Some do it for vengeance, others for land, some for attention.
- Conflict: It is difficult for readers to imagine the internal struggle the accused must have undergone, not to mention John Proctor's decision to confess adultery to save his wife.
- Figurative Language: The play abounds in metaphor, simile, and personification.
- Cause and Effect: Where do you assess the blame for such a tragedy?
Project Ideas for the Crucible
The following project ideas for The Crucible will help motivate and inform:
- Hold a mock court: Assign lawyers, judges, and a jury.
- Wanted posters: Make posters of the accused and hang them throughout the room.
- Make story boards: This helps students recognize the main events in each act.
- Timelines: you can do an historical timeline or a plot timeline.
- Witches throughout history: Salem is not the only incident of witchcraft accusation.
- McCarthyism: a display on McCarthyism and Communism helps readers understand Miller's purpose in writing the play.
- Act: Pick a scene and act it out.
- Make a children's book.
- Take a field trip to Salem.