The Crucible Character Analysis Lesson Plan
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Theme Revealed Through Character Development:
This lesson plan focuses on Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams as character foils. Students will learn about character foils by identifying similarities and differences between Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams and considering how each character values loyalty, reputation, and honesty. By studying Elizabeth and Abigail as character foils, students will be better able to describe how their traits and behaviors advance some of the novel’s key themes and major ideas—notably, the play’s position on widespread paranoia.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to
- define the term literary foil and describe Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams as character foils;
- compare and contrast Elizabeth Proctor’s and Abigail Williams’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors at key turning points in the play;
- identify and describe major themes that emerge from Miller’s characterizations of Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams.
Skills: close reading, character analysis, contrasting, drawing themes from the text, collecting evidence through internal research
Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.3, SL.9-10.1
By the time The Crucible was published in 1953, Arthur Miller was already an accomplished playwright. His most popular play at the time, Death of a Salesman (1949), had won a Tony Award for Best Author, The New York Times Drama Circle Critics Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
While Miller was achieving his first notable critical and commercial success, the US was in the grip of McCarthyism, or the Second Red Scare, a tumultuous period during which Americans feared communist infiltration of their government. McCarthyism emerged after World War II, when the Soviet Union (USSR) began seizing satellite nations across eastern and central Europe. Though the US and the USSR were allies during World War II, their relationship deteriorated into the Cold War, a covert conflict between the ideologies of capitalism and communism, and democracy and socialism. Global events that included the Korean War, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Blockade, and the USSR’s testing of nuclear weapons contributed to an atmosphere of anxiety in the US.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy exacerbated Americans’ unease in 1950 by declaring—without sound evidence—that 205 communists had infiltrated the State Department. The hunt for communists, nicknamed “Reds” because of the USSR’s red flag, commenced. Miller was personally affected when his friend, acclaimed theater director Elia Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and reported eight actors as communist sympathizers. Miller was shocked by Kazan’s claims and by the general climate of moral panic. The widespread accusatory mania reminded him of the Salem witch trials (1692–1693), which he had learned about in college. He wrote The Crucible (1953) as an allegory for the anti-communist frenzy permeating daily American life.
The Crucible is a partially fictionalized tale of the Salem witch trials. Salem’s fear of witches is stoked when Reverend Samuel Parris finds his daughter, Betty, unconscious in his attic. He discovered her dancing with a group of local girls the night before and fears witchcraft. Reverend John Hale, an expert in witchcraft, is brought in and rumors of witchcraft spread. Panic erupts after the girls begin emulating fits while accusing other townspeople of bewitching them. In reality, the girls—led by Abigail Williams, Parris’s niece—were trying to conjure spirits with the help of Parris’s slave, Tituba. More than 200 people are falsely accused of witchcraft, some of whom are executed for refusing to confess. By using the Salem witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism, the play effectively sheds light on the hysteria, ethical dilemmas, and conflicts of interest that characterized Miller’s contemporary moment.
The Crucible shows an entire town’s culpability in creating an atmosphere of anxiety that leads to the execution of innocent people. The play’s preoccupation with the hazards of widespread hysteria and wrongful persecution is played out in the characters of Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams. Elizabeth is a supremely virtuous woman who, though described as cold, is honest and seems invested in doing the right thing. Conversely, Abigail is corrupt; she is cunning, dishonest, and does not seem to care that her baseless accusations lead to imprisonment and executions. Though Elizabeth and Abigail are very different, they are united through their love of John Proctor—Elizabeth’s stern, no-nonsense husband who had an affair with Abigail seven months prior to the beginning of the play. Comparing and contrasting Elizabeth and Abigail reveals the play’s grave concerns about how unchecked paranoia can leave the public vulnerable to manipulative people who harness fear in order to advance their own interests. Ultimately, the importance of due process emerges as an important theme in the play.
About this Document
- An introduction to the text
- A step-by-step guide to lesson procedure
- Previous and following lesson synopses for preparation and extension ideas
- A collection of handouts and worksheets complete with answer keys