The Crucible: The Theme Of Identity In A Play

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IDENTITY is what defines us and what makes us different from others. It includes our culture, family, values, beliefs and where we come from. We can express our identity through the clothes we wear, how we behave and the things we do and say. The identity of individual characters in films or plays is captured by the playwright and director by highlighting these elements and by using stylistic features such as figurative language, camera techniques and background music.

One perspective of identity displayed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is that identity is based on an individual’s belief. This is demonstrated through characters like John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse, both ultimately showing utmost loyalty and truth by standing firm in defending their religious beliefs, no matter the consequences. John Proctor, a well-respected man in Salem, is caged by his guilt of committing adultery, however, when he is finally set free from his self-guilt, he is challenged to go against his beliefs and values. On the other hand, Rebecca Nurse is seen to be a noble and angelic character who puts her beliefs above everything else and always responds to difficult situations with a positive approach. This perspective, where the identity of the characters of Salem in 1692 depends on their beliefs, also relates contemporarily to individuals in modern society, as well as in the McCarthyism era of the late 1940s through the 1950s. During this time, Senator Joseph McCarthy stands on his beliefs that all communists are bad, while Miller’s belief defies this ideology by refusing to name suspected communists.

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John Proctor, a character with a good reputation, is lured by Abigail’s beauty which leads him to commit adultery. He believes that his affair with Abigail damaged him in the eyes of God, his wife Elizabeth and himself, and as a consequence, their marriage is affected by it:

No more! I should’ve roared you down when first you told me your suspicion. But I wilted, and, like a Christian, I confessed… must have mistaken you for God that day. But you’re not… (Pg:55)

Elizabeth and Proctor sitting away from each other while having dinner.

In this scene, the director portrays the relationship between Proctor and Elizabeth through how they are seated at the dining table. The quote represents that, as a Christian, Proctor believes that confessing his sins and asking for forgiveness from God, and the people he has wronged, will somehow bring goodness to him. However, after his confession Elizabeth still distrust him. Even though he tries to prove himself as a changed man, he feels like he’s still judged because of his past. Therefore, he is saying that Elizabeth must not judge him for she is not God.

Throughout the play, we see Proctor begrudge Elizabeth because she cannot forgive him, however, he too feels guilty for the same reason. Furthermore, Proctor’s decision to reveal to the court about his affair with Abigail ironically portrays his goodness and his belief to do what is right. He acknowledges his affair with Abigail and taints himself as an adulterer, not only to save his wife but also his friends, with the intention of exposing Abigail’s spiteful character. Proctor’s belief throughout the play has been rocky due to his affair however, it is reinforced when he refuses to sign his name as a witch by saying: “I have three children- how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?” (Pg: 124)

Proctor refuses to sign his name

This quote exemplifies that Proctor values his name and his friends and he does not want his children to think that their father is a witch. Proctor has a strong belief that if he signs his name, he would commit another sin again and it will haunt him for the rest of his life. In this scene, the director uses stylistic devices such as background music to portray the emotions of Proctor. Through Proctor’s actions, we see that The Crucible offers that identity is a result of a person’s beliefs on how they should live their life.

Furthermore, Proctor’s decision to reveal to the court about his affair with Abigail ironically portrays his goodness and his belief to do what is right.

Rebecca Nurse, somewhat corresponding to John Proctor, is the most upright and honest character in the play. This is shown in the first scene at Reverend Parris’s house where Rebecca warns everyone against seeking answers in the supernatural for what happened to the afflicted girls by saying:

I think she’ll wake in time. Pray calm yourselves… A child’s spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and, for love, it will soon itself come back. (Pg:32)

Rebecca saying to Reverend Parris and others that the girls are not afflicted by demons.

In this quote, Rebecca is saying that every young child behaves in a silly way sometimes, and this is natural for all children. Rebecca’s logic has the weight of her experience behind it as a mother and a grandmother. However, in page 32, Rebecca ironically refers to the girls when she says, “they will run the Devil bowlegged keeping up with their mischief.” Furthermore, Ann Putnam’s speculations about Rebecca being a witch and also the charging her of a witch shocks the audience because Miller describes her in his diatribe as:

Rebecca herself, the general opinion of her character was so high that to explain how anyone dared cry her out for a witch…we must look to the fields and boundaries of that time. (Pg:31)

This technique of writing (diatribe) used by the playwright not only gives an insight into who Rebecca Nurse is, but also builds information for future discussions. When she faces trials, she never falters or curses the people that accuses her but instead, she takes charge for herself and maintains her righteous standing throughout the film. As a woman of faith with religious beliefs, she believes in the afterlife and God’s judgement, this is why she refuses to lie and she says: “Why, it is a lie, it is a lie; how may I damn myself? I cannot, I cannot.” (Pg:121)

This quote exemplifies that Rebecca is willing to go through anything just to protect her beliefs, in standing up for what is right. When Rebecca refuses to damn herself, Miller uses her character to demonstrate that individuals in Salem, in 1692, act according to their beliefs and that their beliefs shape their life.

Rebecca ironically refers to the girls when she says, “They will run the Devil bowlegged keeping up with their mischief.”

The Crucible shows a clear allegorical parallel about how identity is shaped by an individual’s beliefs through the McCarthyism era. Joseph McCarthy’s ideology is that communists are bad people and that they are a threat to the people of America. Arthur Miller’s beliefs on the other hand oppose this because he believes that not all communists are bad. McCarthy’s intention is to wipe everyone that is believed to be a communist even if there is no proof that they really are:

Our job as Americans and Republicans is to dislodge the traitors from every place that they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work. (Joseph McCarthy)

Arthur Miller creates The Crucible to illustrate that just because you have an interest in communism does not make you a communist. This is why he uses characters like Abigail Williams in The Crucible to represent how McCarthy’s untrue beliefs about communists destroy innocent lives. He uses Rebecca Nurse to symbolises how he stands up for what he believes in. Miller stands up for his beliefs by refusing to name names of his colleagues as communists and takes the blame all by himself, just like Rebecca Nurse. This is in Miller’s diatribe:

The fate of each character is exactly that of his historical model, and there is no one in the drama who did not play a similar- and in some cases exactly the same role in history.

Miller stands up for his beliefs by refusing to name names of his colleagues as communists and takes the blame all by himself, just like Rebecca Nurse.

Furthermore, this view that individual’s actions are determined by their beliefs also relates contemporarily to modern society, where a person may want to pair up with someone who follows the same beliefs as them, so there won’t be any misunderstanding between them. This is evident in some cultures in India where parents only allow their son or daughter to marry people from the same racial background as them. This is because they believe that people from different ethnic backgrounds have different beliefs and values. Marrying someone outside of their race can have a bad influence on their beliefs on how they live their life. Similarly, in The Crucible we see John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse pursue their beliefs by saying no to signing their names as witches because they believe that this will affect their belief on doing the right thing.

To conclude, there are many different aspects that contribute towards the identity of the characters in The Crucible, however, belief plays a major role in shaping their identity. Proctor’s identity is restored and strengthened by standing up for his belief in doing what he feels is right. Rebecca Nurse’s identity remains unshaken throughout the play, and this is demonstrated when she uses her belief as a guide in the beginning, until the end when she is seen by the audience to be the tragic victim of the play. This also relates back to the McCarthyism era, when Miller himself faces a struggle with his belief that not all communists are bad people and McCarthy’s belief that communists are bad people and that they are a threat. A contemporary example is how Indians’ identity is shaped by their beliefs through their actions of not allowing people outside of their race with different beliefs to have a connection with them.


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