Explain how the time (historical context) of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible affects the enjoyment and understanding of the audience.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Crucible was impactful when produced because of what had happened in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch trials of the 17th Century—almost identical to what was happening in this country with McCarthyism, a time also called...

...the Second Red Scare...characterized by heightened fears of communist influence on American institutions...

The fear was not based on an overwhelming evidence, but upon a perceived threat. The same amount of fear and paranoia existed in the 1950s and 1960s in this country as existed in New England in the late 1600s.

Knowing what had occurred hundreds of years before could not help but impact the audiences who viewed Miller's play, The Crucible in the 1950s.

Salem in 1692 was a horrifying time: the world had gone insane for this devout settlement who not only searched for God in their daily lives but found the Devil lurking behind every corner—behind every innocent action.

The Puritans had come from England, a society that very much believed in witches, the Devil, ghosts, pixies, fairies and evil. In fact, it was not until Shakespeare's time that fairies were no longer seen as evil. Overall, a cow that suddenly went dry or a stillborn baby were causes to look not to the natural cycle of life, but to some blameworthy soul—often a marginal member of the society. Generally women—old, ugly or perhaps suffering from dementia—they were alone in the world and easy prey. The Puritans believed that if they were living Godly lives, there had to be another reason they were being tormented—and someone was to blame.

An important aspect of this time in history is that it was not a belief adopted only by the uneducated:

...superstitions are not confined to...the lower class, ignorant, or common folk. [The w]ealthy and better educated...also entertain beliefs in the supernatural...

The play is based on the Salem trials—the structure of the story is founded on documented events which included people who actually lived at the time and records of deaths of those executed. Documents still exist that shed some light on the events of this time.

I doubt the play was pleasurable because hysteria and madness touched the innocent, a terrifying reality during the McCarthy trials. If it can happen today, how can one feel safe. Children dancing in the woods became an event exaggerated beyond the realm of belief. The Devil (they believed) now walked within the community and no one was safe from accusation. Hysteria invaded the entire community. History notes that jealousy over land—and not witches—may have motivated some of these events: the Putnams were jealous of the land owned by the Nurse family—accusing Goody Nurse may have been a way of breaking the hold of Nurse family on its land—land it would lose if they were convicted of witchcraft.

Theologically, the Puritans were grounded to resist evil in the world—a longstanding tenet of religious doctrine since the arrival of Christianity in England in the 7th Century. However, jealousy and resentment—human emotions—also drove the actions of many. Accusations by children ended lives.

What makes the play so impactful is the sense that hypocrisy, fear and jealousy galvanized these people forward. Hysteria reigned. While viewed as "God's work," it was a travesty that had little to do with God.

The governor's wife, Lady Phipps...was accused of being a witch.

This accusation was said to have played an important part in ending the hysteria with courts outside of Salem.

Read the study guide:
The Crucible

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