Hysteria in The Crucible

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  • 0:03 What Is Hysteria?
  • 0:40 Cultural Context
  • 1:55 Igniting Hysteria in…
  • 4:05 Manipulation and Fear
  • 4:46 A Frenzy of Accusations
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' is about the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century. This lesson takes a look at the use of hysteria in ''The Crucible'' and the implications it had in the Salem Witch Trials.

What Is Hysteria?

Picture a typical Black Friday in the United States: hundreds of people trampling each other, fighting, screaming… all over a sale-priced TV. That's hysteria, or excessive emotional responses that overtake reason and sense, especially in groups of people. History includes several tragic periods in which hysteria reigned supreme. The Salem Witch Trials are an example of this, and Arthur Miller's play The Crucible provides an excellent illustration of the role hysteria played in creating the frenzy of accusations, fear, and murder that comprised the trials.

Cultural Context

In the opening narration of the play, Miller tells us that the cultural context of Salem in the 17th century was the perfect breeding ground for hysteria. The society functioned in a theocracy, or a government ruled by religious leaders in the name of their faith. This particular theocracy was governed by Puritanism, which was a very austere religion. It forbade anything which constituted 'vain enjoyment', such as dancing, art, literature, theater...and most other pleasant things. 'They did not celebrate Christmas,' Miller tells us, 'and a holiday from work meant only that they must concentrate even more upon prayer.' In short, the people of Salem were pretty oppressed by rules and restrictions.

Miller also tells us that society at this time was beginning to feel that 'the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted.' Anyone who has read Stephen King's The Shining can tell you that 'all work and no play' can have detrimental effects on a person. This seems to be what the Salem Puritans were experiencing in the 17th century. Pressure was mounting, people were straining against their restrictions, and there was no outlet whatsoever for personal expression or enjoyment. Surely, this is a recipe for disaster.

Igniting Hysteria in The Crucible

In this highly charged environment, it is understandable that it wouldn't take much to ignite a pretty significant chain of explosions. We see that very clearly in The Crucible. Reverend Parris and his niece Abigail Williams eventually become the two principal accusers and instigators in the witch trials, but in the beginning of the play, they're both very resistant to the idea of witchcraft. Reverend Parris begs others not to 'leap to witchcraft', and Abigail insists more than once that she 'didn't see no Devil!' By starting them in this staunch opposition to the idea, Miller is able to illustrate the profound effect of seemingly small actions.

Ann Putnam is the first one to insist on the idea of witchcraft. She makes only small comments, such as referring to the illnesses of Betty Parris and her own daughter Ruth as 'the Devil's touch.' She also insists she sees 'a notorious sign of witchcraft afoot,' even though no one else sees it that way at first. These small comments are sparks, though, that send flaming embers into the super-charged environment of Puritanical repression.

The fuel for the fire is provided by the community of people who are straining under the restrictions of their theocratic government. Sparks are thrown in by whispers of gossip and the suggestion of witchcraft. The glowing embers strike the fuel and roar to full flame when Reverend Hale, a witchcraft expert, shows up. He arrives looking for witchery, and it seems he's all too eager to find it.

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