Social Studies School Service
Our Absolute Guarantee


THE CRUCIBLE—Historical background of Witches in Salem, 1692.

Arthur Miller wrote the following note to accompany the text of The Crucible:

This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian. Dramatic purposes have sometimes required many characters to be fused into one; the number of girls involved in the "crying out" has been reduced; Abigail's age has been raised; while there were several judges of almost equal authority, I have symbolized them all in Hathorne and Danforth. However, I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history. 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.

As for the characters of the persons, little is known about most of them except what may be surmised from a few letters, the trial record, certain broadsides written at the time, and references to their conduct in sources of varying reliability. They may therefore be taken as creations of my own, drawn to the best of my ability in conformity with their known behavior, except as indicated in the commentary I have written for this text.

Q. In the first line, Miller states that "This play is not history in the sense in which the word is used by the academic historian." What other senses does the word history have?

Miller indicates that "dramatic purposes" have caused him to stray from a strict duplication of historical fact. Dramatic purposes included the ability to stage the play (the number of characters, time lapse) as well as dramatic focus. Abigail's age, for example is raised from eleven years old to seventeen so she can be a credible object of John Proctor's lust and adultery, which are both necessary for the "tragic" nature of the play. Other changes are required by Miller's intent to parallel the events in 1692 Salem with the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. For example, in the play, Giles Corey is crushed to death by stones being heaped upon him since he refuses to answer the court (contempt of court). This was indeed Giles Corey's fate in Salem in 1692. Where the play and history differ is in the nature of the contempt charge. In reality, Corey refuses to plead innocent or guilty when he himself is accused of witchcraft. In Miller's play, Corey is charged with contempt when he refuses to "name names" (i.e. reveal the person who told him of Putnam's desire to acquire land through false accusations). This latter helps Miller's desire for "dramatic focus" and to create a clearer parallel with the McCarthy hearings.

The names of the characters in this play are all drawn from the actual events in Salem of 1692. For more background to the actual events and chronology, see Religious Movements: The Salem Witch Trials (


James I was king of England (1603-1625) when the Pilgrims set sail for Northern Virginia (New England) in 1620. James I was a firm believer in witches and witchcraft and the harm they could do. He even wrote an authoritative account of witchcraft entitled Daemonologie. His belief in witchcraft probably inspired William Shakespeare to prominently feature witches in Macbeth, a play widely believed to be an homage to James I and his supposed ancestor Banquo ("Thou shalt get kings though thou be none").

This passage from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth by Garry Wills helps us imagine the climate of the times in the late 16th and early 17th century in England:

Witchcraft was not just a matter of private concern, filling the law courts with complaints of hexes and love spells. It was a factor in affairs of state. Elizabeth's government showed enough concern when a crude image of herself was discovered that it called in John Dee, the master of occult lore, to prescribe protective measures. This baffled plot against Elizabeth was described by Dekker in The Whore of Babylon, where a conjurer offers his service against the Queen (2.2.168-175):

This virgin wax
Bury I will in slimy-putrid ground
Where it may piecemeal rot. As this consumes,
So shall she pine, and (after languor) die.
These pins shall stick like daggers to her heart
And, eating through her breast, turn there to gripings,
Cramplike convulsions, shrinking up her nerves
As into this they eat.

This is the "pining" spell witches were known for, the one Shakespeare's witch casts on a sailor (1.3.22-23):

Weary sev'n-nights, nine times nine, Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

King James discussed such magic use of images in his dialogue. Elizabeth was also attacked with hellish potions, including the magic poison smeared on her saddle pommel by Edward Squire.

King James was even more plagued by political witchcraft than was Elizabeth. Most of the major conspiracies against his life involved witchcraft. In 1590 Dr. Fian used a "school" of witches to cast spells on him. In 1593 Bothwell's rebellion led to an indictment for witchcraft. In 1600, when the Gowrie Plot failed, magic formulas were found on the body of the man who tried to assassinate the King. It is not surprising that the King should dwell on the dark arts that abetted the Powder Plotters-this was just a new piece in the old pattern of James's psychomachia with hellish powers. (Wills, Garry, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, Oxford University Press, 1995, pages 41-42.)

This was the climate of the times when the Puritans settled New England. Witches and witchcraft were often blamed for unknown phenomena, and deeply religious people like the Puritans were especially prone to see the devil's hand in unpleasant circumstances. The wilderness of the New World presented a particularly potent set of unknown circumstances and dangers. Perhaps it is not surprising that the hysteria of Salem was the result.

For a comprehensive listing of books on the subject, consult the Bibliography on Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and America (

Back to Teaching The Crucible