Teaching Approaches

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Critiquing Criminal Justice: The plot of The Crucible and the fates of its characters depend on the conventions and proceedings of the criminal justice system of colonial Massachusetts. Despite the justice system’s intention to properly guide society, The Crucible often depicts the laws, courts, and judges in a critical light. As a class, discuss the workings of the justice system and evaluate the ways in which justice is advanced or hindered by the court’s actions. The following list contains four methods of the justice system to consider in depth: 

Method: To the chagrin of John Proctor and, to a lesser extent, John Hale, the clerks and judges of the witch trials consistently trust the accounts of the accusers, often without question or doubt. Method: The accused are generally assumed to be guilty, simply by virtue of having been accused. Method: The accused are hanged for refusing to confess and spared for confessing, creating a system that incentivizes false confession. Method: In the final act, Samuel Parris reports that Abigail has fled Salem. The judges refuse to consider that Abigail’s flight might invalidate her entire case. They stay the course, because they are unwilling to confront the prospect that twelve people have been falsely hanged. As a result, seven more people are hanged. 

For each of the above methods, consider the following discussion questions: 

  • For discussion: Why does this method produce problems? How precisely is it flawed? 
  • For discussion: Does this method contain an ethical or logical flaw? Does it contain both? Explain your reasoning. 
  • For discussion: As far as you know, does this method continue to exist in contemporary justice systems? If so, has it changed in any ways? 

Tracing Historical Parallels: Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of anti-Communist fear-mongering. Miller saw in the mass hysteria of colonial Salem an older incarnation of the phenomenon gripping the United States in the wake of World War II. As a class, discuss the historical parallels between the events The Crucible and those of McCarthyism. Some editions of The Crucible contain introductory passages that describe the context of McCarthyism in which Miller wrote The Crucible, giving students the proper historical context. Also, consider drawing on the McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare section of this teaching guide to supplement students’ knowledge. 

  • For discussion: How do the Salem witch trials, as depicted in The Crucible, resemble the McCarthy HUAC trials? How do the two sets of trials differ? 
  • For discussion: How does Miller convey his views on the McCarthy trials through his depictions of the Salem witch trials? How would you characterize those views? Use specific examples from the text in your response. 
  • For discussion: Can you think of other events in history that resemble the Salem witch trials? Are there events more recent than McCarthy’s hearings that warrant such a comparison? 

The Forces of God and the Devil: Throughout The Crucible, the characters attempt to explain and interpret the events at hand by attributing them to either God or the devil. This explanatory framework can be attributed to the prevailing religious beliefs in colonial New England, but it also emerges from the conflicting—and often malicious—purposes of the characters and the difficulties they have in understanding the unfolding situation in which they are immersed. As a class, explore the various ways in which the characters invoke God and the devil. Consider having students address the following discussion questions individually or in small groups before gathering together in a full-class discussion of these topics. 

  • For discussion: Locate an instance in...

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  • which a character invokes God. What is the character’s purpose in doing so? As far as you can discern, is the character invoking God earnestly or duplicitously? What is the effect of the character’s invocation? 
  • For discussion: Locate an instance in which a character invokes the devil. What is the character’s purpose in doing so? As far as you can discern, is the character invoking the devil earnestly or duplicitously? What is the effect of the character’s invocation? 
  • For discussion: In the final moments of act 2, John Proctor declares that “God is dead!” What does he mean by this statement? How do others react to it? How does this invocation of God differ from other invocations of God? 

Putting the Characters on Trial: The Crucible presents the audience with a cast of characters whose personal characteristics and choices deeply influence the events that play out in the plot. While the characters are guided by historical—and, so some claim, spiritual—forces, they act out of their own desires and struggles. As a class, evaluate the actions of six of the play’s main characters: Judge Thomas Danforth, Reverend John Hale, Reverend Samuel Parris, John Proctor, Mary Warren, and Abigail Williams. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of these characters. Encourage each group to examine their character, guided by the following discussion questions. Once the groups have convened, initiate a whole-class discussion. Talk about each character in turn, encouraging the groups to share their expertise with the class. 

  • For discussion: What are some of the character’s key motivations? How do these motivations change over the course of the play? 
  • For discussion: Locate a moment in which the character’s personal interests are at odds with those of others. How does the character confront this conflict? Is the character right to hold their position? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: In your view, does the character ultimately advance the causes of truth and justice or block them? How so? Draw from specific examples in the text. 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • In reality, John Proctor and Abigail Williams did not have an affair. How would the plot of the play differ if it reflected this fact? 
  • Why do you think the Salem witch trials have been so influential and widely discussed in the centuries since they occurred? What aspects of the trials make them consistently relevant? 
  • Which characters do you most identify with and favor? Which characters do you least favor? Explain your choices. 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Depictions of Slavery and Racism: Tituba’s role in Salem society is both degrading and rife with prejudice and misinformation. She is treated terribly by Samuel Parris, she is immediately suspected of witchcraft due to her background, and she is the object of countless uninformed assumptions. Many students will likely find Tituba’s treatment upsetting—and justifiably so. 

  • What to do: Be frank about the realities of slavery and racism in American colonial culture. Studying and discussing such material can be upsetting, but it is important and sheds light on the world of the play. 
  • What to do: Direct students’ attention to Maryse Condé 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, a text described in greater detail in the Texts That Go Well With The Crucible section of this guide. The novel expresses the indignities Tituba faced but does so from her perspective, creating a literary experience that seeks to reclaim the narrative of Tituba’s life and that of others enslaved during the colonial era. 

Depictions of Sexism: Students will likely find the society of Salem in 1692 more sexist than most modern societies. The characters of The Crucible bear assumptions and prejudices about women that are either false or degrading or both. Women are accused of witchcraft for merely reading and called “whores” for engaging in extramarital affairs, among other indignities. 

  • What to do: For each instance of sexism, encourage a discussion about the assumptions and attitudes that undergird it. Such conversations provide an opportunity for students to see through sexism and understand the ignorance, fear, and imbalances of power that so often give rise to it. 
  • What to do: Have students consider the power dynamics in the play. For example, who is represented in the government? In the church? Discuss how the lack of female representation in these positions of power may contribute to a culture of sexism and bigotry. 

The Language Can Be Confusing: In writing The Crucible, Miller sought to produce an idiom that blended colonial-era speech with a syntax and vocabulary suitable for modern audiences. As a result, the language of the play can be difficult to understand, particularly for students unfamiliar with early modern literature. 

  • What to do: Create a list of unfamiliar words and terms that occur throughout the play and offer definitions. Encourage students to bring up words and phrases they find novel or confusing. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Crucible

Perform a Scene: While The Crucible is an engaging and enriching text to read, it is a drama and meant to be performed. Consider performing a scene of the play as a class, preferably casting students in the roles that most interest them. Because memorization is difficult, reading aloud from the text is an adequate strategy; however, encourage students to engage with one another as they perform, rather than simply looking at the book. Focusing on act 3 is an excellent choice, given that it centers around the drama of the court, but any section of the play will provide engaging, dramatic moments. After your students finish performing, ask them to reflect on how their experience of performing the play informed or deepened their reading of it. 

Swap Protagonists: Miller constructed the play around John Proctor’s conflicts and decisions, but there are other characters who could also serve as compelling protagonists. As a class, consider the events of the play through the eyes of Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Mary Warren, Tituba, Abigail Williams, Thomas Danforth, Giles Corey or John Hale. Feel free to study any or all of these figures—or identify others not named here. For each character, identify the central conflicts that they must confront. Consider, too, the character’s crisis moment or climactic decision, which takes the form of a difficult, culminating choice, usually late in the play. What does each decision say about the character who makes it? 

Consider Supernatural and Spiritual Phenomena: The events of The Crucible hinge on supernatural and spiritual elements, but those elements are never explicitly depicted on stage. In fact, the play arguably takes the position that those elements are fictions or psychological fantasies that do not really exist. Characters claim to witness witchcraft, the devil, the workings of God, a bird that represents Mary’s spirit, and other dubious happenings. As a class, discuss how these elements are handled within the play. The following questions can help to spark discussion: 

  • For discussion: When do supernatural or spiritual elements appear, and how? 
  • For discussion: Which characters believe in which elements? 
  • For discussion: Which characters display doubt about the supernatural or spiritual elements that are discussed and presented? 
  • For discussion: When and how do characters make claims about supernatural or spiritual forces to advance their own aims? 

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