Hypocrisy is prevalent throughout Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials of 1692--events he depicts in his effort at drawing a parallel with the anti-communist "Red Scare" of which he would become a victim. In preparing the script for The Crucible, Miller did copious research into the real-life events portrayed in his play, and the theme of hypocrisy stood out as particularly pervasive among the Puritan community involved. An early indication of Miller's intent to illuminate that hypocrisy is in the background material he provides on the character of John Proctor, whose illicit extra-marital affair with the much younger Abigail is instrumental in precipitating the tragic chain of events that culminated in the hanging of 20 innocent people:
"Proctor was a farmer in his middle thirties, He need not have been a partisan of any faction in the town, but there is evidence to suggest that he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites. He was the kind of man - powerful of body, even-tempered, and not easily led - who cannot refuse support to partisans with-out drawing their deepest resentment."
Note the descriptive wording Miller employs in introducing Proctor: “he had a sharp and biting way with hypocrites.” That the presumably happily-married John Proctor would be revealed as every bit as hypocritical as any within his community by virtue of the contrast of his public demeanor with his sexual relationship with 17-year-old Abigail is a very glaring example of the hypocrisy the playwright sought to expose.
The Reverend Parris is another blatantly hypocritical character in The Crucible. As a reverend ministering to a Puritan community, he should be morally above reproach, but from the play’s opening scene, it is clear that Parris will be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. He will be revealed as a petty, frightened individual unable to contain the damage his own paranoia will inflict on those around him—and we’re not even talking here about his ownership of a slave, Tituba, whom he brought back from Barbados. Early in the opening scene, Parris is depicted praying for the recovery of his daughter Betty, apparently taken ill after being observed engaging in strange activity with his niece Abigail and with Tituba. Alarmed at the possibility that the citizens of his town will suspect his daughter of practicing witchcraft, Parris reveals his true character in the following comment, in which he threatens Abigail for her role in the suspicious events:
Parris: Now look you, child, your punishment will come in its time. But if you trafficked with spirits in the forest I must know it now, for surely my enemies will, and they will ruin me with it.
Note, again, the words Miller has emanate from the mind of this less-than-respectable minister. This ‘man of God’ is more concerned with his reputation and with whatever political infighting surrounds him than in the truth. Now, look at the character of Ann Putnam, described by the playwright as “a twisted soul of forty-five, a death-ridden woman, haunted by dreams.” With this introduction of another citizen of this community, the actors and directors, and readers of Miller’s script, know that Ann Putnam will play a prominent role in the tragic events to come. Ann’s bitterness at the repeated deaths of her children and her jealousy of Rebecca Nurse, who has 11 children and 26 grandchildren. As the Putnams and Rebecca joust over the condition of the incapacitated Ruth:
Mrs. Putnam, with a growing edge of sarcasm: But I must! You think it God’s work you should never lose a child, nor grand-child either, and I bury all but one? There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!
Ann Putnam’s bitterness towards Rebecca, an elderly woman in her seventies, provides another example of the hypocrisy endemic among this community. Ann’s accusations against Rebecca, who Miller describes as enjoying “the high opinion of most people,” stands in stark contrast to the love-thy-neighbor mentality that one would expect from a community built around fealty to the word of God.
The Crucible was Miller’s allegory about the communist witch-hunts sweeping America during the early 1950s, and that would find their personification in Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Miller took aim at the hypocrisy of the holier-than-thou mentality that led to unnecessary deaths in 1692 and to many damaged lives in the 1950s.