Discussion Topic

Comparing and contrasting The Crucible and Macbeth, and their relevance to modern life

Summary:

The Crucible and Macbeth both explore themes of power, ambition, and the consequences of moral corruption. While The Crucible focuses on the hysteria and injustice of the Salem Witch Trials, Macbeth delves into personal ambition and guilt. Both plays remain relevant today as they highlight the dangers of unchecked power and the moral dilemmas individuals face in their pursuit of success.

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How can The Crucible and Macbeth be compared and contrasted?

Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Shakespeare's Macbeth share similar themes and are loosely based on historical events and figures. Arthur Miller's play is based on the Salem witch trials, which took place in seventeenth century New England. Shakespeare's Macbeth is named after the historical King of the Scots, who defeated Duncan I and reigned from 1040–1057 A.D. While both playwrights were greatly influenced by historical figures and events, they used artistic license to distort facts in order make their works more entertaining and dramatic. Both playwrights also incorporate supernatural elements and witchcraft into their plays. Arthur Miller's The Crucible focuses on the hysteria throughout the town of Salem concerning the fear of witchcraft while Macbeth is influenced into making fatal decisions based on the prophecies of the Three Witches. Both John Proctor and Macbeth are also considered tragic heroes, whose inherent character flaws lead to their demise.

Despite the many similarities between both plays, Arthur Miller's The Crucible allegorically represents Senator McCarthy's "witchhunt" for communist sympathizers in the 1950s. In addition to the fact that Macbeth is not an allegorical play, the settings, plot, and motivation of each character are completely different in The Crucible and Macbeth.

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What are some comparisons between Shakespeare's Macbeth and Miller's The Crucible? 

The most important similarity between the two plays is that they show how the supernatural can be manipulated for the sake of earthly power. Macbeth effectively enters into a pact with the forces of darkness in murdering Duncan and establishing himself on the Scottish throne. Yet these forces are very real, as can be seen from the ability of the Weird Sisters to whip up a frightening storm. Contrast this with The Crucible. Here, there's no actual witchcraft involved, no supernatural forces at work. What there is, however, is the fear of witchcraft, which keeps the entire town of Salem in the grip of mass hysteria and authority figures like Reverend Parris firmly in control.

In both plays, the question of the existence of the supernatural is largely irrelevant. What matters is how the relevant characters regard the supernatural and how they use it for their own ends. Reverend Parris believes in the forces of darkness as much as Macbeth, but like the Scottish tyrant, he's also a worldly political figure, who realizes that the general obsession with all things dark and demonic can be very useful to him in his career. And the behavior of Parris and his horrid niece Abigail Williams, comes to be every bit as foul as anything conjured up by the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. In both plays, the line between the natural and the supernatural is blurred, so that it becomes virtually impossible to tell which is which.

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What are some comparisons between Shakespeare's Macbeth and Miller's The Crucible? 

On the surface, the plays seem to have nothing in common but witches.  However, Macbeth and The Crucible are both about the perils of ambition.  In Macbeth, the witches are (probably) real, but the ambition is the problem.  The witches make a prophecy to Macbeth that he is going to be king, and he takes it and runs with it.  Then, his desire to stay in control slowly destroys him and his kingdom.  In The Crucible, there are no witches except the ones in Abigail’s head, and her ambition also slowly destroys Salem. 

After hearing the witches make the prophecies, which are probably just to have a little fun with him, Macbeth decides that even though he is not named king, he is going to become king anyway.  Then, after killing the former king Duncan, he is not done.  He is worried that he can’t hold onto his ill-gotten gains without getting rid of other possible obstacles to his success, such as his supposed former friend Banquo, who also heard the prophecies. 

To be thus is nothing;

But to be safely thus.--Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd: 'tis much he dares;
And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. … (Act 3, Scene 1)

Macbeth sends murderers to kill Banquo, his son Fleance, and Macduff’s entire family.  They fail to kill Macduff, who joins the heir to the throne, Malcolm, and comes for Macbeth with an army.  The kingdom is torn by war for no reason, just because of Macbeth’s ambition and because some witches wanted to have some fun. 

In some ways, Salem goes through similar chaos in The Crucible.  It is also torn apart for no reason.  Abigail Williams tries to make herself seem important and distract from her bad behavior.   She also uses the witch trials as a way to get back at people she does not like, especially John Proctor for spurning her. 

Most people seem to just go along with the witch trials, just as no one seems to have publicly questioned Macbeth.  Hysteria gets the best of them.  Proctor seems to be one of only a few who speaks against the witch trials. 

PROCTOR: What work you do! It‘s strange work for a Christian girl to hang old women!

MARY: But, Mister Proctor, they will not hang them if they confess. Sarah Good will only sit in jail some time… and here‘s a wonder for you, think on this. Goody Good is pregnant! (Act II) 

Although he spoke against them in his home, he was public too. When accused, Proctor also faced a choice.  He could confess when he did nothing or be honest and go to his grave honest.  For Proctor, doing the right thing in a sea of chaos was of the utmost importance.

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How do The Crucible and Macbeth relate to modern life?

In both of these works, we see one person's dramatic ability to change, either for the better or for the worse.  Such an ability can give us hope that we can always redeem ourselves in our own eyes by making choices with integrity; however, it could also convey to us the need to always be thoughtful and purposeful in our decisions: the difference between being a good person and a bad one is a matter of choice. 

John Proctor begins the play as a conflicted man, torn between wanting to think of himself as a good and righteous man and feeling like a fraud because he cheated on his wife with their seventeen year-old servant, Abigail Williams.  By the play's end, he considers lying to save his own life because, in his mind, it would not ruin anything that was not already ruined before.  Eventually, he rediscovers his own goodness when he resolves not to lie and to exercise integrity in this decision.  He redeems himself and dies righteous.

Macbeth, however, goes in the opposite direction.  He begins the play as a loyal friend and devoted subject and kinsman to his king.  However, he allows his ambition and pride to overrule his more noble feelings, eventually becoming resigned to violence in order to hold onto his power and position. 

We learn from these men that it can take as little as one decision to completely change who we are. When Proctor decides not to lie and when Macbeth decides to kill his king, they both change dramatically, one for the better and one for (much) worse. 

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