We are first introduced to the ‘strikingly beautiful’ Abigail Williams in Act I of one of Arthur Miller’s most acclaimed works The Crucible. She is a dominant figure in the play who is both malicious and manipulative. She is astute and knows how to use power to her own advantage by all means possible. She is a marvellous antagonist with vengeful desires and vehicle for the mass hysteria which becomes a key theme later in the play.
Abigail’s dominance as a character is apparent from the opening scene when poor Betty Parris lies in bed overcome by a mysterious trance with both Tituba and Reverend Parris also present in the somewhat dull, ‘unmellowed’ room. The setting set by Miller is typical of the furnishings of Puritans; simple and functional with only ‘a chest, a chair and a small table’. As Abigail Williams enters the room Miller describes her as being ‘strikingly beautiful’. This is a particularly strong image as the room she has entered has nothing particular of interest yet Abigail is striking. This suggests that Abigail has a strong presence and foregrounds her role in the play.
Throughout the first act, we learn more about Abigail’s dominance and authority over other characters within the play. We see the power that Abigail has over Betty Parris where she commands for Betty to ‘sit up now!’ and ‘stop!’, whilst shaking her. These short, snappy commands make Abigail appear to have authority. The way in which she orders Betty to ‘stop’ is almost like she is more of a surrogate mother angrily shouting her child, which in this case is Betty. Although we know that she is Betty’s cousin, some audiences may see Abigail as this mother figure involuntarily and subconsciously – giving Abigail a more dominant role and higher status.
Progressing through the opening act, we learn that Abigail possesses a shrewd insight, as she is presented with a sharp awareness, as being astute and quick minded. We also see that Abigail has the capacity for strategy, this can be seen when Abigail quickly points the finger to “watch her own back” at Tituba – something she easily got away with as in such times being a black slave was probably one of the lowest status’ to stand at. In possessing these strengths, Abigail can be seen to be beyond other characters, and really does set her apart giving her an advantage over many other characters in the play.
As a result of Abigail’s dominance in the play, she holds great power over other characters- however she abuses this power and can be seen as a typical bully. She can be seen as fearful, intimidating and persuasive. She presents images of fear such as when she talks about seeing her own parents heads ‘smash’ on the pillow next to her – possibly scare the younger, more vulnerable characters. She presents malicious and domineering behaviour throughout the act and as a result of this behaviour she can be seen as the vehicle behind the mass hysteria as she knows that her fellow characters will do as she says; creating a snowball effect of hysteria. Her selfishness is another aspect to consider, this is a quality something many bullies posses. We can see this clearly when Abigail is threatening Betty after she screams out ‘Mama, Mama!’ – she says ‘I’ again and again, which really emphasizes her self- centred personality.
Throughout the act she then takes the opportunities to look after herself and uses situations to her advantage also , which can be seen in the case where she blames Tituba despite Abigail being the one encouraging the chanting in the first place – to save her own neck. She then uses her allegations against Tituba to her advantage obtaining somewhat recognition from those of a much higher status in the courts. Abigail’s bullying behaviour can be seen most clearly when she threatens Betty Parris after her hysterical outburst. She is harsh with her words and seems to be both commanding and imperative in the way that she speaks.
When she is threatening Betty, she uses dark and oppressive imagery such as her parent’s heads being smashed against a pillow, ‘reddish work’ which could also mean murders and something ‘terrible’ that could just happen to the girls’ in the black of some terrible night’. Her bullying behaviour can also be seen when she says ‘I can make you wish’ – a term often associated with bullies in other books and films alike. Minor sentences are used almost in a staccato which makes her dark oppressing words seem even more threatening, going also in line with Millers stage directions for Abigail to shake Betty roughly.
Another quality bullies seem to have is to be manipulative. When Miller introduces Abigail he makes a point in saying that she has an ‘endless capacity for dissembling’. This means that Abigail is able to act, she is able to transform into various characters yet still be Abigail Williams. It is important to note that Miller uses the word ‘endlessly’ when he says this; this means that Abigail wasn’t at all limited by the number of times or the different acts that she could perform. By having this ability, Abigail’s character within the play can be seen as almost metamorphic – able to change form as and when necessary.
Being able to change form and act, Abigail is able to be manipulative and throughout the act an eerie sense of manipulating by Abigail can be seen. She quickly identifies peoples flaws, weaknesses and prejudices to gain control over them. With this knowledge, she then becomes mercilessly manipulating and uses this to her advantage. Abigail’s talent for manipulating and changing forms can clearly be seen upon her encounter with John Proctor. In a short space of time Abigail is presented to be ‘softening’ and gentle to then be bitterly ‘angry’ to then be ‘in tears’. Here we see Abigail playing the part, something she seems very comfortable in doing.
An important thing to remember about the way in which Abigail acts is the fact that Abigail seems quite dauntless in what she is doing, she appears to be fearless of the consequences some of her actions might have, nor does she seem to be very intimidated by other characters so much that she backs down. An example of this is Abigail’s fantasy of Proctor’s love and her vengeful desire to eliminate Elizabeth so that she may have Proctor to herself. She even ‘drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor, this would’ve been completely against Puritan beliefs. Her willingness to discard Puritans social restrictions sets her apart from other characters and suggests that nothing is impossible for Abigail, nothing is beyond her grasp, not even God’s word.
Due to the context of the play; a time of deeply religious Puritan surroundings in New England Massachusetts, Miller includes lots of religious connotations and often uses Biblical language. With such strong Biblical links, Abigail Williams’ character can be seen to be similar to that of Jezebel in the Bible. In Christian lore, a comparison to Jezebel suggested that a person was a pagan or an apostate masquerading as a servant of God. By manipulation and/or seduction she misled the saints of God into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. In particular Jezebel has come to be associated with promiscuity and in modern usage; the name of Jezebel is sometimes used as a synonym for sexually promiscuous and sometimes controlling women. The idea of Abigail being similar to Jezebel, links in as she is in fact manipulative and within the first act, we are told of Abigail’s affair with the married John Proctor, years her senior.
As manipulative and malicious Abigail is, one must ask whether she is completely bad? As we are told when we are introduced to Abigail’s character, she is an ‘orphan’ she is also unmarried, which at the time would mean that she was low rung on the Puritan Salem social ladder, with only social outcasts and slaves like Tituba below her. This leaves Abigail in a vulnerable position. We must question whether declaring witchcraft was really a malicious act or whether it was a cry for attention and some power? Declaring witchcraft in such times would result in instant status and recognition which later could lead to power. Another cry attention that should be considered is the idea of Abigail’s fantasy for Proctor’s love.
Being a young girl, perhaps this reflects on her age? As well as considering if Abigail is completely bad, one must try to understand why Abigail behaves like this. The idea of Abigail being vulnerable is possibly a reason for why she is so manipulative and dauntless. As we are introduced to Abigail we are made award that she is an ‘orphan’, Abigail later goes on to talk about seeing ‘Indians smash’ her ‘dear parent’s heads on the pillow’. As she has seen the worst, it may mean that Abigail feels the need to be self sufficient and strong as she has grown up with little or no love and lonely; typical of Puritan’s nature -and being a hard faced independent is in fact Abigail’s only option.
As a conclusion, we learn in the opening scene of The Crucible that Abigail holds an authority as a character within the play who is presented by Arthur Miller to be a typical bully; who presents threatening, selfish, intimidating and manipulative behaviour. We learn that Abigail has a capacity for strategy and an ‘endless capacity for dissembling’ making Abigail quite an intriguing character, a character to certainly watch throughout the later acts, as we are left to ponder, what exactly will Abigail do next?
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Topic: Abigail Williams in Act I of the Crucible by Arthur Miller
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