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Ezekiel Cheever in The Crucible

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Get acquainted with Ezekiel Cheever from Arthur Miller's compelling play 'The Crucible' in this lesson. Cheever helps demonstrate Miller's strength as a crafter of complex and resonating characters.

Up from Humble Beginnings

A 1938 Disney fairy tale mashup has Mickey Mouse as The Brave Little Tailor, tackling the giant that has been terrorizing the countryside. There is no evidence that this little tailor with a gigantic responsibility influenced Arthur Miller when he wrote The Crucible in the midst of the Cold War and during the early stages of McCarthyism. Still, it's an intriguing image to keep in the back of our minds in examining Ezekiel Cheever, another humble, village tailor who suddenly finds himself bearing an enormous responsibility. Cheever's character, converted from real-life teacher to tailor in the play, adds an important dimension to Miller's work, and further demonstrates how artfully he avoids assigning convenient blame or creating simplified heroes and villains. Cheever emerges as a subtle antagonist as the story unfolds, an oppositional element who acts without malice or negative intent, but nevertheless contributes notably to the downfall of the play's protagonists.

Becoming Clerk of the Court

Ezekiel Cheever takes his responsibilities extremely seriously, and they are extensive. As the Clerk of the Court that prosecutes (and persecutes) those under the charges of witchcraft that run rampant in Salem, he keeps track of general testimony, offers personal testimony about public activities and behavior, advises judicial officials, and serves warrants to members of the community - even arresting his fellow Salemites as required.

An 1876 Depiction of a Court Scene During the Salem Witch Trials
salem court

As a representative of judicial authority, his performance is impeccable. He remains cordial and gracious to fellow town members, and is even apologetic at times. He also maintains a level of balance and objectivity beyond that of his superiors. Yet for all his humility and composure, Cheever is above all loyal to the institutional authority he serves, and he does not hesitate to provide incriminating testimony against a friend and neighbor, such as John Proctor, or to take the vindictive accusations of Abigail Williams at face value. When he arrives at the Proctor home to serve Elizabeth a warrant, he reaches his own informal verdict against her based upon Abigail's carefully contrived manipulations. Previously a well-regarded member of the community, Cheever becomes the eyes and ears of the court, taking on its assumptions.

Cheever the Antagonist

As noted earlier, Miller avoids assigning his characters cookie-cutter hero and villain roles, so we need to think of the protagonists and antagonists in more complex ways. The term protagonist refers to the central character or character group in a given plot, the one(s) whose struggles and accomplishments define the main story - often this provides the audience with a conventional hero. By contrast, then, the antagonist challenges and opposes the protagonist, actively working against the protagonist's goals or best interests and setting obstacles in her or his path. In many narratives, this is a formula for the villain.

Ezekiel Cheever, however, is thoroughly trusted throughout the Salem community, which perhaps accounts for his rapid rise from village tailor to appointed court officer. As the Proctors see the direction of Abigail's growing control over town perceptions, they continue to take it for granted that Cheever will maintain an objective and reasonable perspective. He is neither calculating nor malicious in his relationship to the protagonists in The Crucible, and he firmly, but still graciously, rejects villainous associations:

Corey: 'It's a pity, Ezekiel, that an honest tailor might have gone to heaven must burn in hell. You'll burn for this, do you know it?'

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