Arthur Miller and The Crucible

Examining the consequences of personal conscience in conflict with rigid societal perceptions


Key Staff

Primary instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


This first of two lessons in this unit examines the consequences of personal conscience in conflict with rigid societal perceptions of what is "right" in human behavior as this conflict is articulated in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Central to this examination is the focus on Puritanism as an embedded strand in the American psyche, infusing attitudes and values that have been both positive and destructive in shaping the American character. Particularly under scrutiny is the way Arthur Miller in this lesson and Tennessee Williams in the second lesson both probe the nature of "guilt" generated by such a rigid posture and illuminate the paranoia that grows out of this "guilt."

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Participate in the reading and close textual analysis of one of America’s most valued plays
  • Probe the way drama can be developed as an effective vehicle to indict injustice
  • Explore the impact of dramatic theater as a catalyst for social, political, and cultural change
  • Examine the damaging effects of rigid philosophical views being imposed on others
  • Expand their experience in analysis of structural patterns of composition
  • Deepen their understanding of drama as a cultural mirror
  • Assess the evolving nature of the American "hero"
  • Consider the implications of entrenched attitudes and values in the shaping of the American character
  • Identify what generates "guilt" in human society
  • Probe the nature and consequences of "guilt" in American society
  • Assess the responsibilities of the "poet" dramatist
  • Broaden their experience in comparative analysis
  • Experience growth in the writing process, oral skills, skills of research, contextual analysis, and collaboration
  • Gain new insight into and appreciation for the distinctive American "voices" that emerge in 20th century drama

Teaching Approach

  • Arts Integration
  • Thematic

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Consult some of these sites for background information:

Prior Student Knowledge

Familiarity with the structure of a play (scenes, acts, etc.). General knowledge of the definition of Puritanism.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Distribute the History of Modern American Drama handout and the Vocabulary handouts to the students, both of which are located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Initiate the study of dramatic sources in this lesson by asking students to share their perceptions of the purposes of dramatic theater. Divide students into working pairs. Ask each pair to list (in a 10 or 15 minute allotted time frame), as many titles as they can recall of plays they have read, seen, or acted in. Call attention to the fact that in "great" dramas there are many strong concentric levels of experience but that these strong currents feed into a transcending theme. Request each pair to make an assessment of the transcending "mission," "issue," or "purpose" they feel emerges from each play on their list. A few possible generalizations and specific play responses:

  • The play addresses a social issue (Raisin in the Sun)
  • It makes a "political" statement (Shakespeare’s histories)
  • It reveals the impact of cultural change (A Streetcar Named Desire
  • It exposes a cultural flaw (Romeo and Juliet; Death of a Salesman)
  • It lays bare human frailties and foibles (Macbeth; The Glass Menagerie)
  • It explores the role of fate in human existence (Oedipus Rex)
  • It celebrates the "heroic" (Henry V, Part 1; Henry V)
  • It evokes empathy (This Property is Condemned)
  • It exposes the destructive and/or redeeming power of "obsession" (Hamlet; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
  • It exposes the deep longings of the human heart (The Glass Menagerie)
  • It disturbs through such forces as ambiguity and absurdity (Waiting for Godot; The Sand Box)

3. Open the discussion in a large group format. Encourage students to share their conclusions about the purposes of dramatic theater. Review (or introduce) the Aristotelian term "catharsis." Consider making a master list of "purposes." Reinforce the power of drama as a cultural mirror and as an agent dedicated to effecting social, political, and cultural change.

Build Knowledge

1. Advise students that the action of the play they are about to read centers on witchcraft. Encourage students to share their perceptions about witchcraft. Suggestions:

  • Ask students to give a brief account of one or two fairy tales in which witches are an important part of the story line.
  • Raise the question: Do you believe in witches?
  • Encourage an exchange of ideas on factors that generate belief in witchcraft. Consider psychological explanations, possible social, economic, and political reasons.
  • Ask for classic examples of images which, through time, have been associated with witches and witchcraft. In other words, how could one identify a witch? (Possible responses: riding a broom; stirring a cauldron; chanting seemingly a devil’s code; taking on animal shapes; reading books, etc.)

2. Help students acquire a basic understanding of the historical framework of the period in American history in which The Crucible is set. In Miller’s opening "exposition," for instance, he makes the statement: "The witch-hunt was a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward individual freedom." Encourage students to reach into their study of American history to explain some of the causes of this "turn." Some possible responses

  • New philosophical ideas emerging
  • The growth of science and the questioning evoked in scientific inquiry
  • The push into the wilderness in the quest for new land
  • The increasing wealth generated by hard work

Share with them a scholar’s statement that orthodox New England Puritanism, at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century had "crystallized," and was beginning to "crack," and would eventually "crumble." Encourage them, also, as they work through the play, to identify "clues" of evidence of the "loosening" of the tight orthodox Puritan community (for instance, the gold candlesticks; Proctor and others’ plowing on Sunday).

  • John Winthrop’s sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" and his "A Little Speech on Liberty," Jonathan Edward’s sermon, "Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God," and several Nathaniel Hawthorne short stories and his novel, The Scarlet Letter, provide excellent accompaniment to a study of Miller’s The Crucible. (Also, Edward’s sermon, the Hawthorne works, and The Crucible are excellent additions to a study of Puritanism in American history and American Civilization courses.) This Activity focuses briefly on Edward’s sermon and on two Hawthorne short stories, "The May-pole of Merry Mount" and "Young Goodman Brown" as background for Miller’s play.
  • "A Model of Christian Charity" provides psychological insight into the formation of the tight community of God’s chosen, the "city on the hill" which must be purged of any symptom that its "purity" is being undermined by Satan—hence meaningful background for study of The Crucible.
  • "A Little Speech on Liberty" (1645) includes significant remarks on political liberty as such liberty was perceived in the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts, providing a provocative base for weighing the attitudes expressed by Danforth and Hale in The Crucible. (A comparison of Winthrop’s statements with the actions of the magistrates in the play could be a good essay topic.)
  • "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (1741) is excellent material for oral reading. Consider choosing a student to roleplay Edwards "delivering" a vignette of the sermon to a Puritan congregation (the class). The powerful imagery of the sermon—particularly the "spider" image helps inculcate how intensely "guilt" is embedded in the Puritan consciousness. Although delivered at a later date than the Salem trials—the sermon was part of the "Great Awakening" which attempted to reestablish the Calvinistic tenets of orthodox Puritanism—it provides an excellent frame of reference for study of The Crucible.
  • "The May-pole of Merry Mount" is a brief story that helps reinforce understanding of the rigidity of the Puritan outlook, particularly the outlook on "dancing in the woods" as a sign of being in league with the Devil. One way of "decoding" the story is to ask students to consider Hawthorne’s sentence in paragraph one: "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire" as a structural pattern for the story. Encourage students to make a list of all images they encounter in the story that align with "gloom" and another that align with "jollity." Ask students to (a) draw from the lists to construct an overview of each of the two groups who encounter each other in the woods and (b) to explain their perception of the ending of the story.
  • "Young Goodman Brown" includes mention of actual figures from the Salem witch trials and sharpens students’ awareness of the Puritan paranoia about "sin" and "evil" that helps feed the hysteria of the trials. Having students trace the encounters of Young Goodman Brown in his "dark journey" and give careful definition of the "consequences" detailed in the last paragraph provide meaningful background for study of The Crucible.
  • Hawthorne’s short story, The Minister’s Black Veil, is another good source to underscore the paranoia about "sin" and "evil."

3. Distribute and have students read the Biographical Information of Arthur Miller handout located within the Resource Carousel. A discussion should follow on what students believe were the greatest influences on Miller’s style and work.

4. Refer students to the Research Project handout located within the Resource Carousel. Divide students into groups and assign them a topic from the sheet.

5. Have students present their short research projects to the class.


1. Inform students that their assignment is to read Act I of The Crucible. Consider assigning Miller’s opening "exposition" as homework, followed with a discussion of how specific points in Miller’s comments align with what students know about the time period from their study of American history.

2. Assign an in-class essay (impromptu "test") in which students are asked to draw from background sources, their study of American history, and Miller’s initial "exposition" to sum up their perception of basic Puritan attitudes and the status quo of Puritanism in America at the end of the 17th century.

3. If time allows, read all of Act I of The Crucible in the large group. As the reading moves forward, ask students to clarify the following:

  • The basic problem that exists when the play opens
  • The nature and relationships of the characters
  • The unfolding of the plot by the end of Act I
  • Puritan beliefs and attitudes that feed the action of the play
  • Clues that reveal the underlying causes of the witch hysteria

4. Refer students to the The Crucible Act I Research Guide handout located within the Resource Carousel. On completion of the reading of Act I, divide students into collaborative groups to complete the following tasks:

  • Sum up the action that takes place in Act I. and identify elements that they think will need to be resolved as the play unfolds.
  • List specific "symptoms" identified as possible clues that the Devil has invaded Salem.
  • Plot how they would stage Act I. Encourage them to think about spatial relationships on stage, props, lighting, etc.
  • Share ideas generated in small group discussion in a large group format.

5. To achieve still broader student investment in the characterization and action of the play, divide the class into small play reading groups for the reading of Act II and Act III. Ask each group, on completion of each act, to discuss and take notes. Consider dramatizing the last scene of Act III in the large group, even though it may have been read in the small play reading groups. If read in small groups, encourage each group to "volunteer" a member(s) who had demonstrated special dramatic flair, in the group reading, for participation in the dramatization. Following a recount of major threads of development in the first three acts of the play, if time allows, read all of Act IV in the large group, using the The Crucible Acts II/III/IV Discussion Questions handout located within the Resource Carousel. (Note: If time is a factor, the first part of each act could be assigned as homework.)

6. Have students examine the full play. The following topics could be used for collaborative projects, discussion, panels, essay assignments, quizzes, and /or tests.

  • Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s in which he and hundreds of others were entrapped. Many professional and personal lives were ruined by the "hysteria" of fear and suspicion generated by McCarthy’s accusations based on little or no hard evidence. From this initial perspective, the play could be examined as a "political" statement and, as such, offers a rich base for examination from several "political" perspectives.

Some suggestions for student follow-through from an historical/political angle:

  • Encourage students with special interest in history to research and share information on what built the climate of fear, after World War II, that would serve as an "enabling" environment for McCarthy’s accusations. Suggest, for instance, that they draw from their study of American history to profile how the background and proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Alger Hiss and Rosenburgs’ trial contributed to the development of an "enabling" climate; also, the fear generated by Russia’s development of an atomic bomb.
  • Ask students interested in social psychology to explore the far-reaching effect of "herd mentality" in the heightening of the climate of fear to a peak of hysteria. Encourage them to research the far-reaching effect of the fear of communism in America as it played out in such arenas as dismissal of teachers and professors accused of promoting study of "communist ideals," the "blacklisting" of actors, directors, and scriptwriters, union members, etc. Have them note the historical implications of "guilt by association" and McCarthy’s insistence that those summoned to hearings name others they thought were engaged in "subversive" activities.
  • Encourage students with special interest in media to research and profile the magnetic role of television (a newly emerging media force at the time) in spreading "herd mentality" and building McCarthy’s far-reaching power base.
  • Ask students interested in political party politics to research political party dynamics of the time period that could be perceived as contributing to McCarthy’s entrenchment as a dominating force in the Senate.

Note: Consider assigning, after the sharing of the above information in either collaborative group reporting, individual, or panel presentation (with "listeners" encouraged to take notes), an essay in which students are asked to identify threads of development within Miller’s The Crucible that "match" the events surrounding the McCarthy era.


1. Encourage students to probe the "transcending" aspects of theme and characterization and the dramatic power of the form of the play from several perspectives.

Although Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, was initially conceived as a response to the McCarthy "hysteria," like all enduring and greatly valued plays, the "messages," characterizations, and what may be perceived as the prime statement of the play transcend both the historical framework of that era and the historical environment of Salem in which the development is embedded. The forces that feed the universal elements and dramatic power of the play are numerous. Suggestions:

Certain "truths" about human experience are captured, in a compelling way, as the play unfolds. Ask students to select one of the following "truths" as a centerpiece for building an essay, explaining and supporting their analysis (either pro or con) with specific evidence of how the selected "truth" emerges in the play.

  • fear breeds superstition; superstition breeds fear.
  • some personalities have an inbred power to manipulate others.
  • guilt is a powerful agent in effecting vulnerability in an individual.
  • to explain the unexplainable, the human mind reaches into a supernatural domain.
  • "monomania" in belief can be a very destructive force.
  • people often "cave in" to "authority" figures for fear of being socially isolated.
  • "Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned."
  • the Devil, in human imagination, is manifested in many forms.
  • "evil" is in the eye of the beholder.
  • in Miller’s words, in some areas, people have a "predilection for minding other people’s business."
  • "integrity" is an intrinsic element of the "heroic."

Some topics for discussion of the author’s craftsmanship could include:

  • The way Miller slowly releases the exposition of the play. It is through bits and pieces that the reader/viewer is brought in touch with the "status quo" of what is happening in Salem, Massachusetts.
  • As Miller moves the action forward, he skillfully implants questions in the reader/viewer’s mind, right up to the end of the play, about the outcome of decisions, loyalty, and relationships.
  • Miller’s use of repetition to mock and his parallelism in syntax at the end of Acts I and III build intense rhythms that heighten the dramatic power of the scenes.
  • Miller’s design of building to a crescendo at the end of each act, culminating in Elizabeth’s statement and the "final drums" of the last Act is a powerful structural pattern.

Consider asking students if they are acquainted with any music or ballets that build in a similar pattern. (Vignettes of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, for instance, could be an excellent "match" for demonstrating the power of a similar structural power in music and dance.) Ask any dancers in the group to develop and demonstrate a brief vignette of choreography built on a "crescendo" structural pattern.

Other suggestions for writing or discussion assignments:

  • Crucible has been referred to, by some scholars, as a "Morality" play. What is a "Morality" play and what evidence could be used to argue for or against the assertion?
  • Explore the implication of the title of the play. What is a "crucible"? In what specific way(s) can the play be perceived as an extension of that definition? (Possible student responses: dictionary definition of the term as a "pot" that through the process of "refraction," through intense heat, sends the "good" ore to the top; connotatively, a severe trial or test. Based on this definition, those who endure the "heat" of rigid Puritanism, to keep their integrity intact, are metaphorically the "pure" ore.)
  • Miller comments, on the advent of one of the productions of The Crucible, that a central issue addressed in the play is the "continuity through time of human delusion (in this case, perhaps, that the Puritan community is God’s chosen ideal, a 'city on a hill' and 'purging' will keep the 'city' 'pure'), and that the only safeguard, fragile though it may be, against it, is the law and the courageous few whose sacrifice illuminates delusion."
  • The Crucible offers a provocative base for examination of the nature of the "heroic" in modern American drama. To initiate such an examination, consider asking students to make a jot list of characteristics they think project the concept of "heroic." Then, as an in-class writing, a formal essay assignment, or a class discussion, ask students to weigh one or more minor characters in the play in relation to the "heroic" qualities on the list (Mary Warren, Rebecca Nurse, Francis Nurse, Giles Corey, Danforth, Thomas Putman, Reverend Hale, Tituba, etc.). Consider that a central focus of the topic of the "heroic" should be on John and Elizabeth Proctor. In examining the nature of these two figures, introduce (or review) the concept of "antihero." Explore the difference between the "traditional" or "classic" hero (possible responses: larger than life (Beowulf); free of human frailties; saves the day; seeks to fight a cause for others’ welfare; manifests the "ideal" in every way) and the modern "antihero" (an "everyman" with human faults; sometimes a "loser"; copes; puts up a good struggle; self-aware of mistakes and flaws; "heroic" in taking a stand against difficult odds, but does not always win).
  • Raise the question of how the concept of "antihero" is an outgrowth of the dramatic change in outlook in modern culture and of the infusion of "realism" into the philosophical underpinnings of modern art expression.


Assess the students based upon the following criteria:

  • Level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments
  • Level of discernment in contributions from research and to collaborative work - substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects
  • Range and depth in analysis
  • Evidence of creative thinking
  • Organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation
  • Thoughtful response in pre-writing, pre-discussion "brainstorming" activities - seriousness of purpose in following through on creative and expository writing assignments
  • Solid preparation for performance activities
  • Alignment of written performance with good practices of the writing process
  • General level of engagement in all activities and assignments

Suggestions for Special Projects

Encourage students to select an incident or encounter from The Crucible to use as a basis for developing an "added" scene to the play. Urge them to give careful attention to sustaining the personalities and linguistic properties that Miller attaches to any characters they use from the original script. Also, ask them to be prepared to explain specific ways their added scene would enhance the play.

Many drawings and engravings of the Salem Witchcraft Trials were developed in the mid-19th century. Encourage students interested in art to make a sketch or sketches of some event or encounter in the play.

Some students may be interested in investigating the biographical background of some the characters who were actually involved in the Salem trials, Giles Corey, for instance.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 5: Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

United States History

US History Standard 12: Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period

US History Standard 26: Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II United States

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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