Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Lesson 9: Witchcraft
Nowadays when you think of magic, you might imagine an old bearded guy with a big stick or a teenager with glasses and a scar, but witchcraft was a serious and deadly business in the 17th century...
The Salem witch trials really happened
The Crucible is based on a set of real witch trials that took place in Salem in the 17th century. In 1692, three Salem women were accused of witchcraft by Abigail Williams and Betty Parris.
It was easy for the people of Salem to believe that these three women were witches because they were different - Sarah Good was a beggar, Tituba was a black slave and Sarah Osburn didn't go to church.
They were arrested and put on trial. These trials led to more accusations, eventually causing mass hysteria. Over 150 people in Salem were accused of witchcraft before the panic died down.
Witchcraft was a very serious charge in 17th-century Salem. It was almost impossible to prove your innocence, and if you didn't confess you would be hanged. 26 people were put on trial and all of them were found guilty. 19 were hanged.
How can a production help remind the audience that the play is based on real events?
The Puritans associated witches with the Devil
The Puritans believed that a witch was someone who had given their soul over to the Devil, and the Devil gave witches supernatural powers.
They thought the Devil encouraged witches to corrupt others -
This is why the trials progressed quickly. The judges wanted to stop witchcraft from spreading.
Accused witches were put on trial in the hope that they would confess and reveal other witches in the community.
Some people who refused to confess were tortured. What happened to Giles Corey?
Those who confessed weren't executed, but could lose their land and property, and were usually excluded from the church and the community.
Anyone could be accused of witchcraft
The Puritans believed that women were weaker than men, so they would give in more easily to the temptations of the Devil. This meant that women were more frequently accused - but men could be witches too.
Why do the Puritans believe women were weaker than men?
Anyone who acted in a way the church disapproved of was in danger of being accused. -
Although at first those accused were women of low status like Tituba and Sarah Good, even respected members of the community like Rebecca Nurse were arrested and hanged. -
In the play, rumours of witchcraft are spread by fear
The rumours about witchcraft are 'confirmed' by the girls in Act One, who lie because they're afraid they'll get into trouble for dancing - they seize the chance to blame other people for their behaviour.
Fear keeps the rumours of witchcraft alive. Some people give fake confessions to save themselves, and then accuse others of corrupting them. This is what Tituba does in Act One when she's told she must either confess or be whipped to death.
Fear makes people hysterical - people abandon their common sense and get swept up in the excitement. This is seen in Act Three when Mary Warren tries to admit that the accusations were lies. When the other girls turn on her and insist they can see a 'bird', she becomes convinced that she can see it too.
The bird gives the director a dilemma - showing the bird on stage would help the audience to understand Mary's fear, but it needs to be clear that the bird isn't real. Directors need to convey the genuine fear of witchcraft without suggesting that it exists.
The trials are used to settle old scores
The Puritans' Christian values would have discouraged the villagers from taking revenge publicly on others, so some characters see the trials as a convenient opportunity to act on old grudges.
Jealousy is also an underlying motive in the play. Life can be hard in Salem, so when some villagers are more fortunate than others, people become envious of their good luck. This envy influences the way some characters respond to witchcraft in Salem.
ENVY and REVENGE
What is Abigail jealous of?
Who does Abigail want revenge on? And why?
The Putnams - What motivates their actions?
Miller establishes resentment between the villagers from the outset of the play - it's important for a production to show there is conflict between the villagers before the accusations start. How can an actor show this in Act One?
WORK AT HOME:
Imagine that you are a Puritan in 17th-Century Salem and have been falsely accused of witchcraft. Write a letter explaining what has happened to you and your feelings.
Create an original character, you can reference characters from the play if appropriate.
You could include:
What you think will happen to you now that you've been accused.
Whether or not you will confess and why.
E-mail your letters in to us and we'll organise a class to record them.