One timeless theme found in many pieces of literature is the abuse of power. Many people who are in power, abuse their power, and commonly become corrupt or unjust due to the power. The essence of human nature is to crave power. Along with this craving of power in some humans is the corruptness and injustice when one comes into power or on one’s path to achieving power. This is a timeless theme, as power and human nature have always existed in man’s history. This theme may be observed in Macbeth, a play written by William Shakespeare in the early quarter of the 17th century and set in the 11th century. This can also be observed in The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller in the 20th century, and taking place in the 17th century.
In the beginning, Macbeth is a virtuous man, or at least interpreted as one by those who know him. He has been thinking of power, but has not yet made any decision upon it, and it is really just a thought, a dream even, in the back of his head, which he seems to have no real intention of pursuing. One may see how Macbeth is virtuous when an injured Captain is coming back from the front, and tells Duncan and Malcolm about the battle:
“And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling, / Showed like a rebel’s whore: but all ‘s to weak; / For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name), / Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel, / Which smoke with bloody execution, / Like Valour’s minion, carved out his passage, / Till he face the slave; Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chaps, / And fixed his head upon our battlements.” (Act One, Scene II, l.14-24 Shakespeare)
In this story told by the captain, Macbeth is a virtuous man. The Captain qualifies Macbeth as brave and even comments on how Macbeth “deserves that name”. This may be considered Macbeth initial and noble stage, before power corrupted him, to the point of committing numerous atrocities for the sake of power. Macbeth however is soon corrupted by the thought of achieving supreme power over Scotland, brought forth by the witches telling him that the crown would be his.
The corruptness may be seen in Macbeth mostly seen in Macbeth’s path to power. The thought of obtaining power has pushed Macbeth to contemplating murder much more than before, and he stacks up the reasons of why he should not kill Duncan against the reason to kill Duncan. One can see this in a monologue early in the book:
“[…] First , as I am his kinsman and his subject, / Strong both against this deed; then as his host, / Who should against his murder shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself. […] hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet tongued, against / The deep damnation of this taking-off; / […] To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on the other -” (Act One, Scene VII, l.1-28 Shakespeare)
In this passage, one may understand that Macbeth realizes that the reasons not to kill are that Duncan is part of his family, that Duncan is a guest in his house, and that he is a subject of Duncan and therefore has sworn loyalty to Duncan. He then realizes that his only motive to kill Duncan is his “vaulting ambition”. This vaulting ambition corrupts him and seems to be enough to make him want to murder Duncan to obtain kingship, and to murder many more to keep it.
Macbeth’s corruptness comes up many more times in the play. In order to keep his kingship, he also kills Banquo. He visits the witches again to know his fate, and they tell him to be careful of Macduff. On his return he learns news of Macduff’s departure for England. In this passage, one may see how Macbeth resolves this dilemma:
“The castle of Macduff I will surprise, / Seize upon Fife; give th’ edge of the sword / His wife and babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line.” (Act four, Scene I, l.49-151 Shakespeare)
This decision is an atrocious one, and is only being made in Macbeth’s confused fury to defend his throne. Power has corrupted Macbeth enough for him to want to hurt Macduff by any means, even if this does not benefit Macbeth other than to have Macduff suffer. This passage shows just how low
Macbeth has sunk, and how twisted his actions have become since his initial stage.
As one may now conclude, power strongly corrupts Macbeth. Originally he is a virtuous man, defending his homeland from rebels, yet he slowly gets transformed by power into a ravaging terror, destroying everything in his way.
In The Crucible, power as a corrupting force may be seen through many characters. The girls in the Crucible tell many lies to become “officials of the court”. Mary Warren, for example, evidence may be seen in a scene where Mary Warren is speaking with Parris and Elizabeth:
“Mary Warren: You must see, sir, it’s God’s work we do. So I’ll be gone every day for some time. I’m- I am an official of the court, they and I- She has been edging toward offstage
Proctor: I’ll official you! He strides to the mantel, takes down the whip hanging there.
Marry Warren: I’ll not stand whipping any more!” (59 Miller)
In this passage one may see that Mary Warren seems to believe that she has gained power in the court, and we discover later, that this power was gained through lies. Originally she was considered to be part of one of the lowest classes in the Crucible’s hierarchy of society, however telling these lies and giving false evidence has promoted her directly to “official of the court”, which is much more honorable and important than being a servant. She has therefore gained power through her corrupt practice.
Another character in The Crucible who is corrupt is Danforth. He is an example of a character that has power, but then uses it unjustly. For example, in the passage where he accuses Giles of contempt one may see Danforth being unjust:
“Giles: I will not give you no name. I mentioned my wife’s name once and I’ll burn in hell long enough for that. I stand mute.
Danforth: In that case, I have no choice but to arrest you for contempt of this court, do you know that?
Giles: This is a hearing; you cannot clap me for contempt of a hearing.
Danforth: Oh, it is a proper lawyer! Do you wish me to declare the court in full session here? Or will you give me good reply?
Giles, faltering: I cannot give you no name sir, I cannot.
Proctor, breaking in: Your Honor- he has the story in confidence sir, and he-
Hale: We cannot blink it more. There is a prodigious fear of this court in this country-
Danforth: […] to Giles: You are under arrest in contempt of this court.” (98 Miller)
In this passage one may understand how corrupt and evil Danforth is, as he has been told something by Giles in confidence, and he turns this into Giles being arrested. Both Proctor and Hale, two characters who are portrayed as virtuous and fair, defend Giles, however Danforth goes in opposition and has Giles arrested. Another way one may interpret Danforth’s malice is by the terror of the court which Hale calls their attention to in this passage. Danforth obviously reigns in terror and only gets respected because people are afraid of being put in jail if they oppose him, as in Giles’ case.
A third character in The Crucible who is also corrupt is Parris. He uses his power as preacher in attempts for personal financial gain. One may see this when Proctor, a virtuous and honorable character, is telling Hale about Parris:
“Since we built the church there were pewter candlesticks upon the alter. […] But Parris came, and for twenty week he preach nothin’ but golden candlestick until he had them. I labor the earth from dawn of day to blink of night, and I tell you true, when I look to heaven and see my money glaring at his elbows- it hurt my prayer sir, It hurt my prayer.” (65 Miller)
In this passage one may see how selfish Parris is, and how he abuses of his position to get what he wants. We may equally see Parris’ when he is speaking with Giles, Proctor and Putnam about the pay he should be receiving and many other financial affairs:
“Parris: The salary is sixty-six pound, Mr. Proctor! I am not some preaching farmer with a book under my arm; I am a graduate of Harvard College.
Giles: Aye, and well instructed in arithmetic!
Parris: […] I am not used to this poverty; I left a thrifty business in the Barbados to serve the Lord.” (29 Miller)
In this passage one can see how Parris is trying to use his position as preacher for financial gain. This is completely in opposition with what the religion is all about, and what a preacher is meant to be doing. He is therefore, also a corrupt character in The Crucible, as he is using his power for corrupt reasons which are in opposition with the message he is meant to be transmitting.
As one may now conclude in The Crucible several characters are corrupt due to power, such as Mary Warren, Danforth and Parris just to name a few. Mary Warren is tells lies to move up in society, while Danforth is unjust with his power, and Parris uses his power for financial gain.
In conclusion, a timeless theme present in both The Crucible and Macbeth is that power corrupts. Power corrupts because it is in human nature to crave power, sometimes overly so which leads one to commit terrible acts. In addition to this craving for power, in some humans, is corruptness and abuse of the power.
The Crucible and Macbeth were written and set in different time periods, yet the theme that power corrupts is recurrent and is therefore a timeless theme.