Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"


The Lesson


"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows," by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in  the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.

"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows," by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.

Credit: Image courtesy of Witchcraft in a Salem Village.

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day—
Emily Dickinson, #1583.

In their book Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum remark upon the prominent place the Salem witch trials have in America's cultural consciousness. They observe, "for most Americans the episode ranks in familiarity somewhere between Plymouth Rock and Custer's last stand" (22). Moreover, they note that because of the trials' dramatic elements, "it is no coincidence that the Salem witch trials are best known today through the work of a playwright, not a historian . . . When Arthur Miller published The Crucible in the early 1950s, he simply outdid the historians at their own game" (22).

This lesson plan's goal is to examine the ways in which Miller interpreted the facts of the witch trials and successfully dramatized them. Our inquiry into this matter will be guided by aesthetic and dramatic concerns as we attempt to interpret history and examine Miller's own interpretations of it. In this lesson, students will examine some of Miller's historical sources: biographies of key players (the accused and the accusers) and transcripts of the Salem Witch trials themselves. The students will also read a summary of the historical events in Salem and study a timeline. The students will then read The Crucible itself.

By closely reading historical documents and attempting to interpret them, students will be able to put themselves in the place of playwrights; that is, they will be able to look at historical events and the people involved with them and ask, what makes these trials so compelling? What is it about this particular tragic segment of American history that appeals to the creative imagination? How can history be dramatic, and how can drama bring history to life? A reading of The Crucible will reveal how one playwright not only "outdid the historians at their own game," but also created an authentic American tragic hero.

As students examine historical materials with an eye to their dramatic potential, they can also explore the central questions of psychology and society that so fascinated Miller. Why were the leaders of Salem's clerical and civil community ready to condemn to death 19 people, who refused to acknowledge being witches, based on spectral evidence and the hysterical words of young girls? Why would the church and government authorities continue to credit these wild and unsubstantiated stories as respectable people from all walks of life—landowners, women of independent means, neighbors, even clergy—were arrested and brought to trial? What was it about the time period that made such hysteria, and ultimately tragedy, possible?

Guiding Questions

  • How well does history lend itself to art? In what ways do historical events lend themselves (or not) to dramatization?
  • How does Arthur Miller use history to create a play that continues to speak to audiences today

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the historical context of a consciously historical work of literature
  • Compare facts with the fictional or dramatic treatments of the facts
  • Ponder the differences between history and literature
  • Discuss what makes a drama or tragedy compelling
  • Recognize the close ties between a nation's history and culture and the literature it produces
  • Consider the ways in which an historical event and a work of literature may mean different things for different generations of citizen readers

Preparation Instructions

  • To help students complete their research for activity 1 and activity 5, download and make copies of the .pdf worksheet, Researching the Salem Witch Trials: Inference and Evidence. The worksheet is provided to help students organize their research, distinguish inference from direct evidence, formulate a main point, and develop supporting evidence. The completed worksheet might also be useful to students as they complete the final written project described in Activity 5.
  • For background on Puritan religious beliefs, as well as links to other sites on Puritanism and witchcraft in Europe prior to 1692, please see Pilgrims and Puritans: Background, a link on the EDSITEment reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia.

    There is a section devoted to religious beliefs in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America on Divining America: Religion and The National Culture, a resource from the EDSITEment-reviewed TeacherServe: From the National Humanities Center. (The site contains useful tips for teachers.) TeacherServe also makes available an essay entitled "Witchcraft in Salem Village: Intersections of Religion and Society," a good introduction to the themes addressed in Miller's play, as well as "Puritanism and Predestination," for a discussion of Puritan religious beliefs.

    For general background on this period, the EDSITEment-reviewed Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive is an invaluable source, and will be the principle resource for the student research described in activity 1. This website contains such resources as seventeenth-century documents, including court records and personal letters, and historical maps, including an interactive map of Witchcraft Accusations from February 29 to March 31, 1692.
  • Puritan Beliefs. Before assigning The Crucible to students, help them to enter the mental world of Puritan New England. Contrary to their stereotype, the Puritans were not killjoys when it came to appreciation of art and music; nor did they disapprove of the enjoyment of sex within marriage. The Puritans did, however, hold firmly to their faith and disapproved of other avenues to knowing God's will (for example, the teachings of Anne Hutchinson, Quakerism). Puritans believed in the depravity of man, and they believed that only God's chosen elect would be saved. Moreover, they truly believed that God and Satan were active presences in the natural world around them; natural signs must be read to see God's will or to discover Satan's tricks. The Salem Puritan community was keenly aware of its own insecure position in regard to faith (who was saved? who wasn't? how could you tell?), good health, financial position, social status, and geography. Old England was a long way away, and the new world was fraught with peril, not the least of which was the harsh terrain itself and the Native peoples. Anything or anyone that attempted to undermine the church, civic authority, or the cohesion of the community was viewed as a threat. Indeed, fear—of isolation, of death, of chaos, of loss of faith—was very real. To the Puritans, tragedy could occur in the blink of an eye.
  • Defining Tragedy. For witnesses of the events and for readers and modern audiences of The Crucible, the witch trials evoked the emotions of Aristotelian tragedy, pity and fear: pity for the victims, and fear that such accusations and death could happen to them. You can test, sharpen, and extend students' understanding of the nature and purpose of tragedy by sharing with them the well-known passage from Aristotle's Poetics(from the translation by Gerald Else):
    Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics.

    While there is a great deal to unpack here, focus your discussion on Aristotle's words about "a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts." A useful supplement and guide to help you understand Aristotle's idea might be "Aristotle, Classic Technique, and Greek Drama," an article by Martha Fletcher Bellinger. [Note: Whichever source you consult, be aware that Aristotle uses the famous term "catharsis" ("purgation") without defining it, and in the centuries since, there have been many interpretations.]

  • As you and your students discuss Aristotle's ideas and their relevance to Miller's tragedy, you may also want to share with them Miller's essay, The New Yorker, October 21, 1996, "Why I Wrote the Crucible: An Artist's Answer to Politics." While Miller's essay does not explicitly discuss Aristotlian aesthetics, he does have interesting things to say about pity and, especially, fear.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Historical Figures Research: Biography and Court Transcripts

Having learned a little about the mindset of a seventeenth-century Puritan (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson for resources and ideas), students should choose one person from the following group of historical figures upon which to do research:

Cotton Mather
Bridget Bishop
Rev. Samuel Parris
Judge John Hathorne
Abigail Williams
Mercy Lewis
Mary Warren
Sarah Good
Rebecca Nurse
John Proctor
Elizabeth Proctor
Martha Cory
Giles Cory

Students will have in-class time to do Internet searches for their historical figure. The research they do will manifest itself in first a written and then an oral report presented to the whole class. Both written and oral reports should respond to the questions: What about your character seems especially interesting or compelling? How would you dramatize your character to make him or her come to life for a contemporary audience?

For both the oral and written reports, biographical information may be found on any of the sites described in Preparing to Teach. In particular, students should visit Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive to see if their figure is included in the 3 lists of court room transcripts available; if the answer is "yes," the student should print out the transcript for his or her chosen figure's case. This transcript may give more insight into the figure's life and will certainly be a helpful source of comparison when the class begins to read The Crucible.

Written Reports. To help guide student research for the written report, download the worksheet for this lesson, Researching the Salem Witch Trials: Inference and Evidence Chart. Here are some of the questions (reproduced on the chart provided on the worksheet) that can help guide students as they gather information on their historical figure:

  • What was your historical figure's social and economic status in the Salem community? That is, what did your character do for a living? Was he or she well off? Would he or she be considered educated, upper class, middle class, lower class, poor?
  • How old was your character at the time of the trials? Was your character married or single?
  • Was your character regarded as a good Christian?
  • Was there any gossip swirling about your character?
  • What was your character's reputation in the community?
  • Did your character suffer from ill health or any other sort of hardship?
  • Did your character bear a grudge against anyone in the community?
  • Was your character accused of witchcraft? Or was he/she an accuser?

Oral Reports. The purpose of the oral report is to think like a dramatist: what aspects of this character are most interesting or engaging? The oral reports may be delivered straight or with a dramatic flair--by telling the audience what is interesting about this character, or by showing. Those students inclined to high drama should feel free to "become" their historical figure and address the class as such.

Activity 2. Reading the play

As students read the 4 acts of The Crucible, they should keep a daily journal. In this journal, students should focus on the portrayal of their historical figure. How is the character similar to the person revealed in the court transcripts or biography? How is the character different? Then they should ask the key question: Why has Miller chosen to portray a historical figure in a certain way? How has he embellished the figure to suit his own dramatic aims? And what are Miller's dramatic aims? Finally, do you agree with how Miller has presented the figure? How would you have presented the figure any differently? (Note: Make sure the students have carefully read Miller's prefatory material, "A Note on the Historical Accuracy of the Play." Also, make the students aware that Miller offers his own interpretations of the historical figures in his digressions in Act I.) Students should be prepared to discuss their findings in class.

At some point in your discussion of the play--perhaps as an anticipatory set prior to reading the drama, or perhaps as a discussion arising naturally from your reading of and response to Miller's play--consider as a class some general questions about the nature and purposes of drama and tragedy. Students should think back to movies or books they have seen and read and ponder what kept them watching or reading: this brainstorming should lead into a discussion of what is effective drama. You should also remind students that in The Crucible, Arthur Miller was writing a tragedy. Discuss as a class the meanings of "tragedy" and "tragic hero." What understanding do students have of these terms? What do students think is the purpose of tragedy? That is, why would audiences willingly want to spend their time witnessing painful and terrible events unfolding on the stage? What makes a tragedy effective?

For further ideas about how to help students think about Miller's dramatic purposes in writing this tragedy, see the section "Defining Tragedy" in Preparation Instructions.

Activity 3. Acting out key scenes

Study of The Crucible will involve acting out 2 to 3 key scenes that bring to life what the historical transcript cannot. Indeed, each of Miller's four acts has at least one section that could be effectively acted out in class.

Possibilities include:

  • Act I, Betty Parris's bedroom—the girls, led by Abigail, form a conspiracy to save themselves from being punished for dancing naked in the woods.
  • Act I, Conflict between Reverend Hale and Tituba. Tituba "confesses" and the girls begin their chorus of hysterical accusations.
  • Act II, Elizabeth and John Proctor talk around his adultery, and John accuses Elizabeth of showing him no mercy or charity.
  • Act II, Hale confronts Elizabeth and John over their Christian beliefs; John cannot remember all of the 10 commandments—particularly the one against adultery.
  • Act III, Proctor calls Abigail a whore and declares that he himself is a lecher; states that his wife will vouch for his guilt.
  • Act III, Elizabeth unexpectedly and ironically lies for her husband; the girls begin their hysteria against Mary Warren.

After acting out one, some, or all of the above scenes, the teacher and students should discuss how effective these scenes are as drama and how they bring to life history. Another question would be what, if anything, is Miller inventing to make history more dramatic or enticing? Are you more likely to remember one of the court transcripts or Arthur Miller's play?

Activity 4. Specific Analysis of Act IV—John Proctor as Tragic Hero

Students should focus on the following questions in their reading of this act. Their responses should be written in their journal.

  • What is John Proctor's dilemma in Act IV?
  • What motivates Proctor's initial decision to lie?
  • What does Proctor mean when he refuses to let Danforth take his signed confession and explains, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" Pay especial attention to Proctor's emphasis on his name and his distinction between it and his soul.
  • How are Elizabeth Proctor's final lines—the final spoken lines of the play—essential to our understanding of John Proctor? "He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!"
  • Finally, how does this act illustrate the paradox that Arthur Miller highlights in Act I: "for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies. It was forged for a necessary purpose and accomplished that purpose. But all organization is and must be grounded on the idea of exclusion and prohibition, just as two objects cannot occupy the same space. . . The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom."
Activity 5. Final Project

The final project will be an essay that each student will write. Students who have completed the worksheet, Researching the Salem Witch Trials: Inference and Evidence (see Activity 1), will find it a useful aid for developing and supporting a thesis.

Possible topics include:

  • Further exploration of the comparison between the student's historical figure and its dramatic counterpart. In a well-argued analysis, show the reader how Miller works with a historical figure to make him or her a compelling, dynamic, dramatic figure. Point to examples from history and from the play text.
  • How or why does The Crucible still speak to audiences today? Students who are particularly savvy about current events could begin with Miller's own quotation in the introduction of this lesson plan and spin a paper off from it.
  • Analysis of The Crucible as an American tragedy with John Proctor as an American tragic hero.
  • Pretend that you are a playwright who has a keen interest in history. Tonight is the night that your writers' group meets to discuss individual projects. Your goal is to present to your group your idea for dramatizing a past event—it may be a recent current event. Describe, in writing, why you think the event would make good drama and how you would dramatize it. Be sure to think carefully about story, conflict, character, and resolution.

Extending The Lesson

Miller's The Crucible and Cold War America

  • Many teachers use The Crucible with their discussion of McCarthyism. Another interesting connection would be to teach the play with a film that is very much about McCarthyism—John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Students could make very profitable comparisons between the film's tragic hero, Raymond Shaw, and The Crucible's John Proctor.

    Miller himself suggests that one reason why his play remains a popular version of history is that the fears and paranoia that brought about the witch trials are still with us today. Consequently, not only is his play about history, his play has made history. In an article for The New Yorker Miller writes, "The play stumbled into history, and today, I am told, it is one of the most heavily demanded trade-fiction paperbacks in this country; the Bantam and Penguin editions have sold more than six million copies. I don't think there has been a week in the past forty-odd years when it hasn't been on a stage somewhere in the world" (164).

    The Crucible engages its audience with its treatment of the subversive and the potentially transgressive; in short, evil. Through the play, Miller clearly suggests that history never really dies; rather, to use a cliché, it repeats itself. Witchcraft, as Dickinson poetically observes, may have been "hung" in history, but that does not mean it has been silenced. Indeed, Miller uses witchcraft and the Salem witch trials simply as a metaphor for situations wherein those who are in power accuse those who challenge them of suspect behavior in order to destroy them. Salem is an early example of what Miller saw around him in the 1950s—the communist witch hunts and McCarthyism. Miller explains,
    I am not sure what "The Crucible" is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties. For some, the play seems to be about the dilemma of relying on the testimony of small children accusing adults of sexual abuse, something I'd not have dreamed of forty years ago. For others, it may simply be a fascination with the outbreak of paranoia that suffuses the play—the blind panic that, in our age, often seems to sit at the dim edges of consciousness. Certainly its political implications are the central issue for many people; the Salem interrogations turn out to be eerily exact models of those yet to come in Stalin's Russia, Pinochet's Chile, Mao's China, and other regimes . . . . But below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation . . . . (p. 164).
    Arthur Miller on The Crucible
    The New Yorker (v. 72, Oct. 21 & 28, 1996)
Selected EDSITEment Websites

Arthur Miller, "Why I wrote The Crucible."

American Studies at the University of Virginia

TeacherServe from the National Humanities Center

Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

10-12 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Philosophy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)


Activity Worksheets