Miller problematises religious extremism and religious corruption in his drama The Crucible and explores its causes and consequences throughout the play. Salem, in 1692 was a theocracy, and a Puritan society. Puritanism, a strict form of Protestantism has a strict ideology featuring morality, self-discipline and introspection and adherence to religion and G-d. However, Miller utilises irony to problematise this religious extremism and to reveal the corruption evident in Puritan society.
This is evident in both characters representing the Church – Reverend Parris, and Reverend Hale.
Parris is condemned by both Miller and the audience for his sermons on ‘hell’. Furthermore, religious materialism is exposed in Parris’ desire for ‘golden candlesticks’. Hale, is constructed on the surface as a warm character who is proud of his extensive knowledge of witchcraft, and soon extracts ‘confessions’. However, as the drama progresses and Hale forms doubts about the veracity of the witch hunt, religious corruption is revealed. Hale emerges from the drama a broken man who has ‘blood on his head’.
As Hale represents the Church, religion is portrayed as murderous and is condemned.
He encourages people to deny their faith and lie in order to save their lives – a significant contrast to the high moral values of those such as Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor who refuse to compromise their ideologies. The ideology of Puritanism is therefore viewed as weak and corrupt. Furthermore, the witch-hunt is justified throughout the drama as a ‘work of G-d’, or as part of a religious ideology. As the audience knows with the utilisation of dramatic irony that the convicted ‘witches’ are in fact innocent, religion is ridiculed and condemned.
The social and moral problems resulting from bigotry and xenophobia in any context are explored in Miller’s The Crucible. Miller wrote the drama in the 1950s, surrounded by bigotry and fear and therefore these problems are evident in The Crucible. According to Marion L Starkey (1949), in Salem, only twenty witches were executed, a microscopic number compared to the millions who have died in the species of witch-hunt peculiar to our own times. These various ‘witch-hunts’ are symbolised by the title of the drama. A crucible is a mot into which metals are put at high heat for melting and ridding of impurities.
Throughout history, society has sought to ‘rid the impure’ and maintain a purer society through the use of murder, extermination and torture. Has the result been a ridding of impurity? Miller, through the use of irony rejects this ideology, and problematises it in The Crucible. Historic intertexts are decoded by the audience in order to treat these problems raised. The Crucible is most often seen as an allegory to McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s. After World War Two, Americans viewed Russia and Communism and a threat to their capitalist society. Innocent people were persecuted if they were Communist, or even suspected of having Communist sympathies.
This historical intertexts relates directly to The Crucible, rejecting McCarthyism and the xenophobia it caused. However, other historical intertexts are evident in The Crucible and are utilised to present the issues of bigotry, xenophobia and the fear of the unknown as problematic. World War Two not only gave rise to Communism; it was also the period of the Nazi regime. Again, in pursuit of a ‘pure’ race, the crucible was applied to much of Europe, resulting in the persecution and extermination of Jews and other minority races. As Miller himself was Jewish, he may have had concerns about the bigotry and xenophobia of the Nazi Party and its regime. This is reflected – be it consciously or unconsciously – in The Crucible. Other historical intertexts such as the Russian Revolution and its repercussions are also evident in the bigotry and xenophobia evident in Miller’s drama.
The nature of human beings is problematised and moral problems are explored in The Crucible by Miller. Critics complained that Miller had over-emphasised the malice and cruelty of the judicial characters such as Judge Danforth. Miller, however replied that original records showed the judges in that light, and if he was to rewrite The Crucible, he would intensify, rather than reduce the evil nature of these men. This allows the audience to question the evil nature of human beings as presented in the drama, and question the manner in which Miller portrayed these ‘villains’.
Although presented to be acting with zeal and misguidance rather than with malice and deliberate evil, the trait of characters such as Danforth, Parris, Hathorne, and to some extent, Hale to oversimplify issues into black and white is problematised and human nature in this sense is condemned. Danforth believes that people who are not supporting him and completely against him. Characters in Puritan New England are viewed as either good or evil by other characters.
However, the audience is enabled to gain insight into the shades of grey that some characters display, thereby complicating and confusing the issues of human nature and resolving the problems presented. John Proctor, although essentially a ‘good’ character, and the tragic hero of the drama is an ‘adulterer’ and is hostile to other characters such as Parris and Putnam. Giles Corey, although viewed as a moral character who dies rather than betray others is suspicious of his wife who reads ‘strange books’ and is ready to take his neighbours to court on the slightest excuse. By constructing contrasting characters – some that are viewed as purely good or purely evil and a variety of characters that appear to incorporate both good and evil, the problems associated with human nature and human character are revealed and explored.