Martha Corey 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.

Learn about the character Martha Corey from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Martha Corey is distinctly interesting in the fact that she never directly appears on stage in the play, but still contributes importantly to the drama and message.

How to Dress Up a Witch

A 1975 cult classic comedy film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has a great deal of fun at the expense of western history and one of its treasured legends. This fun became popular enough to spawn the recent live musical adaptation, Spamalot, bringing the bizarre Python humor to broader audiences and a new generation. Spamalot, however, omits a scene from the film that connects with the central drama of Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. A woman stands accused of witchcraft. She has a carrot nose tied on with heavy cord, a large funnel for a hat, and a swatch of dark cloth draped over her blond hair to apparently make it look more witchy. Upon being questioned, the frenzied crowd concedes that they did dress her up that way ('a bit'), but insists that she is a witch nevertheless.

The dark humor of the scene revolves around the ridiculous accusations and trumped up 'evidence' presented against her, including the charge of one man that 'She turned me into a newt.' Obviously not a newt, he soon amends 'I got better.' Minus the well-rendered silliness, the absurdly transparent efforts to 'dress up' the Monty Python witch and the wild charges and contrived evidence used against Martha Corey in The Crucible bear a disturbing similarity.

How to Profile a Witch

Arthur Miller's famous play about the Salem Witch Trials is widely recognized for its commentary on 1950s McCarthyism and Cold War culture in America. What the play might get less credit for is its insightful glimpse into the motivations and cultural anxieties that defined societies such as Salem in 1692 on their own terms. Over several hundred years, most of those convicted of witchcraft in Europe and America were women over 40. Women over 60 were particularly susceptible to accusations and conviction, and to being dressed up as witches.

The character Martha Corey, adapted from the historical 72-year-old Salem woman who was among the 19 people hanged in 1692 for witchcraft, allows Miller to demonstrate the sorts of things that might make mature and elderly women suspect. As a dramatic character, her part is relatively minor: in fact, if staged as written, the play never has Martha physically appear on stage at all. Yet as a symbolic representation of injustice, Martha Corey speaks beyond the dialogue of the play and makes a clear statement for the audience. She is dressed up as a witch through the suspicions and assumptions of the community.

Miller's Reworking of the Tragic Flaw

The idea of the tragic flaw comes to us from Greek drama. It refers to a particular trait or set of traits that make tragic protagonists vulnerable to destructive forces, typically propelling them toward their downfall. Among the best-known of these is overarching pride (hubris). Others might include lack of self-confidence, over-attachment, extreme dependence, or hesitancy to act. A literary or dramatic flaw is usually something we can agree is a detrimental or excessive behavior. In a community that itself has fallen into excess and gone out of whack, otherwise positive attributes can lead to a person's downfall, and this is the case with Miller's vision of Salem, Massachusetts. With witch frenzy in full swing, all it takes to place Martha Corey under suspicion is her husband Giles' passing reference to his wife's reading habits, which he jokingly suggests interfere with his evening prayers. Paranoia and opportunism take over from there.

A misleading 19th-century image of Martha Corey pleading before the Court.
Marth Corey courtroom scene

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