How is Abigail Williams responsible for the Salem witch hysteria in The Crucible?
Contrary to popular belief, Abigail is responsible for blaming people; however, the true responsibility falls on Judge Danforth. Danforth ultimately knows the girls are liars and yet he continues to preserve his reputation. There is a point in the play where he is asked by Hathorne to drop the accusations and free the people. Danforth refuses to postpone the hearings until they investigate further.
The preservation of his reputation seems to be more important than preserving the towns people's lives. This is a travesty, yet he maintains his stand that he can not withdraw his decision when so many people have already does for the same cause. Abigail may have got the ball rolling or so to speak, but Danforth could have stopped the hangings and trials under his own word.
While it is not fair to blame Abigail Williams for the entire travesty known as the Salem Witch Trials, she is certainly one significant component of the hysteria and death surrounding this historical event.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller is set in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1690s, and this Puritan community is ripe for trouble. The Puritans were pious people who believed in following the Bible and punishing sin because sin is against the Word of God. Unfortunately, the Puritans did not allow much for forgiveness and repentance, which created an environment of guilt and suspicion. They also developed a great fear of Satan and his influence, particularly through the deeds which he supposedly conducted in the forests surrounding the settlement.
Because everyone sins, the people were constantly dealing with their own sin and the resultant guilt. Sometimes they would point out the sins of others in order to divert attention from their own misdeeds. This is exactly what Abigail does. She and the other girls were out in the forest tinkering with spells and witchcraft, though Abigail was not really playing: she wanted to cast a spell to kill Elizabeth Proctor so Abigail could have John Proctor back.
Abigail and the others knew they would get in trouble (which is why Betty pretends to be in a coma, to escape punishment after her father saw them in the forest). Abigail is the quickest thinking and has the most to lose if her deeds become known, so she completely fabricates stories about being the target of witches after seeing that Tituba escapes punishment by doing the same thing. Miller says she has an "endless capacity for dissembling," and he is right.
We understand Tituba's dilemma, as she is a slave and is an easy target for punishment; however, Abigail's motives are purely selfish at first and then turn into something even uglier when she accuses Elizabeth of being a witch and hurting her. Proctor calls Abigail out in court, knowing it is likely to mean his own death. He knows her for what she is and speaks it emotionally but plainly:
I beg you, sir, I beg you--see her what she is.... She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore's vengeance, and you must see it now.
Of course no one believes him until it is much too late.
Without Abigail, none of the other girls would have thought or dared to make such false accusations. They were swayed by her persuasiveness and were utterly convinced that they were actually being tormented by witches in town. Abigail is the instigator of all of this, and without her no accusations other than Tituba's and the pitiful Mrs. Putnam's would have been leveled against anyone in town. The Reverend Hale would have found no evidence of witchery and the tumult would probably have faded.
While it may be unfair to blame Abigail for everything that happens in these trials, it is certainly fair to say that she took advantage of a suspicious and guilt-ridden society that was deathly afraid of being infiltrated by Satan in the form of witchcraft. Everything she did was for her own sake and for her own advantage; she had no regard for anyone else or the damage she was causing in the town and in the courts. She knew exactly what she was doing; she simply did not care.
For more helpful insights and analysis on this classic play, see the excellent eNotes sites attached below.
Here is a video analyzing the characters of the play: