The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible Essay
The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible
Analyse how Shakespeare, Hawthorne and Miller explore the tensions between individual desires and wider community values in The Merchant of Venice, The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible respectively and discuss different interpretations of the writers’ intentions. The struggle between individual will and community values, described by Arthur Miller as “the balance between order and freedom” is the central theme of Miller’s The Crucible, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
In all three texts, community values are defined not by what is deemed to be ‘normal’, but by its antithesis: the ‘abnormal’ and the incongruous. Whilst they write from greatly differing socio-historical backgrounds – Miller, Shakespeare and Hawthorne all share an interest in the role of “the other” in society, a concept which Edward Said expanded upon in his book Orientalism. Said used the example of underlying western prejudice towards the Middle East, its peoples and its culture; defining “the orient” as “existing for the west, being controlled by the west, in relation to the west”.
In other terms the concept of otherness here is largely based upon self perception, and one’s own place in society; with these ideas being used to subordinate others who do not fit into their society, and these three writers all investigate this conflict by examining the desires and the values of both the other, and the society. One thing the three texts all share in common is this presence of an “other” figure: a character detached from the rest of their community, who refuses to conform to the societies commonly held principles.
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice the play’s antagonist – The Jew Shylock, is an obvious representation of “the other”; and his differences from the rest of the Venetian community are emphasised during the course of the drama. Shylock is portrayed as a character who looks at the world he is in enveloped in with scorn, taking a tone of superiority; and he openly and often makes reference to his status as “the other”, referring to himself in the third person as “old shylock” and “a Jew” – emphasizing his detachment.
His status as an outsider is made clear, mainly by the ways in which the plays other characters refer to him – for example, Antonio several times refers to Shylock as “the devil”, possessing an “evil soul”, “a goodly apple rotten at the heart”, and this mode of mocking address is shared by almost all the play’s characters. This creates a sense of “them and us”, and so Shylock’s distance from the Venetian community is displayed.
On the other hand, Shylock at times is cut a tragic, misunderstood and demonized figure. His famous ‘I am a Jew’ speech from Act 3, Scene 1 makes reference to his exclusion and dehumanization by the play’s other characters. Shylock speaks here of being “disgraced”, “mocked”, “laughed at” and “thwarted”; and Shakespeare generates sympathy for Shylock here with his impassioned speech “Hath not a Jew eyes… senses, affections, passions?
” This is probably the solitary moment in the play in which Shylock’s character is pitied for his differences, and his similarities with Christian characters are made clear. In stark contrast, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter presents the protagonist Hester Prynne as the embodiment of otherness in a very different fashion. Her proud individuality is a main theme of the novel, and her exclusion from “the ugly engine” of the puritan community is made clear through use of various forms of symbolism.
Through setting, Hester is placed in an abandoned cottage which Hawthorne describes as being “out of the sphere of social activity”, and this makes clear her detachment from the rest of the community. The scarlet letter ‘A’ also in itself throughout the novel is a representation of Hester’s individuality, Hester sews the letter herself whilst in prison and the result is breathtaking – “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter ‘A.
‘ It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony”. By embroidering the “A” so finely and ornately, Hester takes control of her own punishment. Though the letter causes Hester to live a lonely life of ostracization, it seems almost immediately to become a symbol for something far more noble than “adultery.
” The letter exemplifies her talent and artistry – skills that allow her to make a living as a single parent in Puritan Boston. As such, it represents her strength and independence. She also raises Pearl, “her only treasure”, and from this she can be seen as the ultimate protofeminist mother. Such qualities set her apart from every other “stern browed” man and “unkindly visaged” woman around her. Wearing the letter cuts her off from society, but it also frees her in many ways, and she is able to observe the cold and strict ways of Puritan society from the perspective of an outsider.
In similar fashion to The Merchant of Venice, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible tackles the concept of otherness by examining racial prejudice within a fervently religious community. The Reverend Parris’s slave, Tituba, is a woman from Barbados who practices what the Puritans view as “black magic. ” Whilst she only does this as a result of Abigail Williams’ manipulation, Tituba admits her supposed sin, and this directly contrasts with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, whose downfall comes as a result of his own will to kill Antonio(‘I stay here on my bond’.)
Yet she is not given a reprieve like the others who confess. Instead, she is condemned to death, and although there is nothing in the play that directly comments on it, racism undoubtedly plays a large part in her fate. In Act IV Tituba says to her jailer “Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin and dancing … It’s you folks – you riles him up ’round here … He freeze his soul in Massachusetts, but in Barbados he just as sweet”.
Here the audience is made aware that before Tituba is brought to Massachusetts, she doesn’t see practices such as singing, dancing, and spell casting as inherently evil, but rather as spiritual traditions which descend from her African roots. Miller here, much like Hawthorne – who includes an adulterous Christian minister in his story – explores the hypocrisy of the Puritan community, examining the irony that the Puritans, who originally came to America to avoid religious persecution, still practiced such deliberate, cruel and ignorant persecution within their own community.
Hawthorne’s presentation of the ways in which Hester is condemned by the Puritan community are fundamental to understanding the conflict between the individual and the community in The Scarlet Letter. The novel’s second chapter details the “simplicity” and the “grim rigidity” of the puritan community, and Hawthorne seeks to deride it by presenting “the ugliest and the most pitiless woman” as the one who calls for her execution.
Similarly to this, Miller’s The Crucible makes use of a third person omniscient narrator, who speaks from a contemporary position, having the effect of someone imparting moral guidance upon the reader. The narrator here is characterized, for the most part, by the contempt he shows for the puritan community; and lengthy sections of exposition are included throughout, providing psychological analyses of some of the play’s characters, for instance the Revered Parris “felt insulted if someone rose to shut the door without asking his permission”, or Thomas Putnam, being described as “deeply embittered”.
In contrast to the general feelings of contempt towards the puritans, the character of John Proctor is held in high esteem, being described as having “a sharp and biting way with hypocrites” and being “not easily led”. It is also interesting to note that Miller juxtaposes this by, in the same section, describing the Puritans as having “no ritual for the washing away of sins”, and so the audience is made aware of where the narrator’s loyalties lie.
Much like Hawthorne, who in ‘the custom house’ section uses words such as “narrative” and “reader” – directly addressing his audience and informing them of his purpose – Miller’s narrator takes on the tone of a story-telling historian with phrases such as “In history he cut a villainous path”, and this has the effect of legitimizing what he says, and so Miller’s agenda – in criticising McCarthyism in 1950’s America through allegory – is better communicated to the audience.
The three texts also all deeply examine the concept of heroism, and there is often a strong link between this and the concept of otherness, as well as to the conflict between an individual and their society. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is from the outset presented as the classic literary anti-hero: the embodiment of deep contradictions: bad and beautiful, holy and sinful, conventional and radical.
From her first appearance she is instantly given an almost Christ-like quality as she “(makes) a halo of the misfortune and the ignominy in which she (is) enveloped” and her “figure of perfect elegance” is powerfully juxtaposed against the “unkindly visaged women”.
As Hester’s character is shamed for her sin and alienated from the rest of society she becomes contemplative – speculating on larger moral questions, human nature, and social organisation. Here, Hawthorne expands upon the concept of American transcendentalism, where Hester rises above her extraordinary circumstances by virtue of her own intuition and sense of self, rather than reliance on, or conformity to the community’s religious doctrine.
Later in the novel her status as an anti-heroine is completed as she no longer “occupies the same position of ignominy previously beheld” – instead, Hester now is described as having neither “irritation nor irksomeness”, having never “battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage”. Here Hawthorne again revisits this concept of transcendentalism, writing of Hester’s truth to herself, “not weighing upon its (societies) sympathies”.
The most relevant aspect of Hester’s representation as a hero here is perhaps the facts she is, in many ways, portrayed as being not only a victim and an object, but as a survivor. Hester is shown to possess great inner strength – starting a business in embroidery work, raising a daughter alone whilst fighting to keep her and all the while coping with her sin and her stigmatisation; she is still portrayed as, essentially, a good person; one who, over the years gains the respect of her community.
The best example of this personal strength is the forest scene in which Hester meets her lover Dimmesdale and implores him to run away with her, First she throws away the Scarlet Letter and then “By impulse she (takes) off the formal cap that (confines) her hair; and down it (falls) upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, imparting the charm of softness to her features.
” With words such as “impulse” juxtaposed with “confined” Hawthorne conveys Hester’s irrepressible nature, and the mix of a truly liberated character who still, in the end, accepts the penance society forces upon her. The reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whilst not “the other”, could also, arguably, be perceived to be the tale’s “hero”. He alone among the major characters never functions symbolically, though he is the familiar figure to a Christian audience. Viewed thus, Hawthorne’s allegorical romance centres on an essentially good man’s struggle with (and eventual victory over) the guilt he experiences after committing adultery.
Hawthorne’s suggestion is that three courses of action are open to Dimmesdale: he may keep silent and suffer “eternal alienation from the Good and True,” the option urged by Roger Chillingworth; or – and this implies that he will probably keep silent all the while – he may escape the scene of the crime and with it his responsibility, the course eventually urged by Hester Prynne; or he may make full and public confession, the course urged by his daughter Pearl.
Having kept silent for more than seven years, Dimmesdale finally has his faith put to the ultimate test and, having agreed to leave Boston with Hester and their child, finds the strength to face his responsibility and confess before he dies. In this sense, rather than being seen as an example of the damaging effects of non-acceptance in direct opposition to the way Hester deals with her sin, Dimmesdale can be seen as a tragic hero.
In complete contrast to The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice presents heroism as being linked to the victory of a collective, rather than an individual. Antonio, the eponymous merchant of Venice is arguably the play’s hero, representing, in his charitable and unworldly nature, the perfect Christian man. To understand the complexities of Antonio’s character it is notable that Elizabethan attitudes towards the idea of a “merchant of Venice” were complex, compounded in part of admiration, in part of jealousy, but also in part of moral disapproval.
The ambiguity in Shakespeare’s title for the play here is clear; and to the Elizabethan mind there was clearly great ambiguity to it, with the idea of a Venetian money-lender and the idea of a Venetian merchant not being entirely separate. However, importantly, the audience is granted an extravagant exhibition of Antonio’s un-merchant-like charity or love. Antonio speaks of how he counts the world as nothing more than it is, “A stage where every man must play a part, /and mine a sad one” but in his response to Bassanio’s need we see Antonio’s conception of his role more extensively displayed.
His use of the world, and all the things of the world, appears to be all without blame; everything he has or can get (for he has to borrow from Shylock in order to meet Bassanio’s needs) is at the service of his friend, and as the action of the play progresses, his original phrase, “My purse, my person, my extremest means /Lie all unlock’d to your occasions” gathers to itself a deep religious resonance.
The fact that this almost costs him his life when his boats sink and Shylock demands that he “shall have (his) bond” is particularly interesting, as Antonio almost literally becomes an ‘imitatio Christi’ (imitation of Christ) – dying for the sins of others – and so, Antonio could, certainly to an Elizabethan audience, be seen as the perfect Christian man, and thus the hero of the play. A more modern, post-holocaust audience however, might have very contrasting to views to the Elizabethans on heroism in The Merchant of Venice; and the interpretations of the Jewish character Shylock are difficult and to some extent ambiguous.
Shylock is one of the play’s main characters, but this also depends on the way that his character is played. He has mostly been portrayed as a “comic” character but when portrayed as the tragic protagonist Shylock’s character acts more as a killjoy, with his scornful nature juxtaposed against the play’s other pleasure-loving characters. The critic John Palmer wrote in The Comic Characters of Shakespeare that Shylock is “An imaginative realization of what it means to wear the Star of David.
” Shylock is a Jew in a hostile community. An outsider who is never accepted. He is proud of his race and his religion, speaking of “our sacred nation”, but he is thwarted by a Venetian society that is insufferable to him. Even his daughter attacks all that he holds dear – eventually marrying a Christian , taking away his money- his family pride and the only “props” in his life. He is scorned at by the Christians, and the play ends with his ultimate humiliation – losing everything and being forced to convert to Christianity.
Therefore, a modern audience is likely to feel great sympathy for Shylock, who can ultimately be seen as the play’s tragic hero, because ultimately he has been sinned against more than he has sinned. In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the farmer John Proctor draws several comparisons with Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; he represents not only someone who refuses to conform to the hysterical nature of his society, but also someone who is deeply flawed yet essentially a good person.
What differentiates him from Hester is the fact that he makes a conscious to decision to sacrifice his own life for his principles, rising above the politics of the play to become its tragic hero when he refuses to sign a false confession and betray his friends and neighbours, and this costs him his life. Proctor is portrayed as a noble character who refuses to blacken the names of others whilst caught up in a society rife with accusation, speaking of how he “cannot judge another”. Such is the case in the play’s final act where Proctor proclaims “You will not use me!
I am no Sarah Good or Tituba, I am John Proctor! You will not use me! It is no part of salvation that you should use me! “, and this final act of defiance emphasizes his individuality, cutting him a tragic figure. Hester on the other hand, by the end of The Scarlet Letter integrates herself into a society which doesn’t change, but with time comes to accept her, whilst Proctor stands as a martyr for his principles. Whilst he is undoubtedly the play’s hero, Proctor is a deeply flawed character, and Miller dramatizes his inner conflicts regarding his adulterous affair to humanize him.
When his wife Elizabeth begins to distrust him he bluntly tells her “I have not moved from there to there without I think to please you… I cannot speak but I am doubted, every moment judged for lies… “, and this illustrates not only his perseverance in attempting to redeem himself for his sin, but his own shame in giving into temptation. This effect of this, ultimately, is that the reader is further endeared to Proctor – as his honesty makes him shine out against a highly repressive accusatory Puritan community.
In conclusion, Hawthorne, Shakespeare and Miller all place great value upon the importance of individualism in society and alternatives to the common consensus. They all explore prejudice and the idea that the majority may not always be right; and the three writers present their audiences with characters who challenge societal norms, exploring the tensions between individual desire and community values when such characters put themselves forward.
Writing partly as historians, Miller and Hawthorne explicitly comment on concepts such as otherness, conformity and the rigidity of certain societies, with very clear political objectives. Yet the openness to interpretation that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice permits gives it a great sense of ambiguity, and the intentions of Shakespeare are far less clear cut, allowing for far more debate amongst modern audiences.
Subject: The Scarlet Ibis,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 11 July 2017
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