Abigail Williams: The Power Of Identity
The citizens in Massachusetts’s town of Salem were suppressed, diligent and extremely obedient. This puritan society changed in 1692, when the entire town became hysterical over the possibility of witchcraft being present in their Christian town. Citizens became ruthless; condemning and perjuring the innocent and deceiving the court just to save their own name.
Would you keep your integrity and sacrifice yourself or would the desire to preserve and gain power become too much for you to handle?
What would you choose?
The Collins Dictionary (2020) states that identity is who you are. It’s the unique characteristics a person has that distinguish them from others, including our values and beliefs, purpose in life and how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Identity can be established in novels and plays through the authors use of stylistic devices, characterisation and genre conventions. The concept of identity in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ drives many of his characters actions throughout the events of the play.
Combined with power and authority, a person’s character can change in a blink of an eye. Power is the ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events. Arthur Miller used power to distinguish and shape the identity of characters such as Abigail Williams, Reverend Hale and Rebecca Nurse. These characters all possess heterogeneous qualities that substantially affect their own identity.
Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible during a polarising time in American history, in which he used the play to indiscreetly challenge Senator McCarthy’s political ways. Joseph McCarthy was an American Senator who mercilessly destroyed American lives for his own selfish political power in the late 1940’s. Miller used the play to show the effect that a position of power can have on a person and how it completely changes the identity someone has. Like McCarthyism, Abigail Williams gains power through her convincing lies and threats. It is shown from the very beginning of The Crucible that Abigail Williams values her reputation over her integrity and her identity. This can be seen in the many lies that Abigail executes during the play, such as (Abigail to Parris) ‘But we never conjured spirits…’ (Parris to Abigail) “…Then you were conjuring spirits last night.” (Abigail) “Not I, sir – Tituba and Ruth.’ (Act 1, p. 10-15) This shows how Abigail Williams from the very start, did not have any integrity for herself or her ‘friends’ and she felt comfortable lying to Parris, who generously took her into his home and raised her like another child. The power that Abigail Williams gained during The Crucibles not only destroyed the town but destroyed her own identity. She used her power to bend those who are in a position to make life or death decisions and in the end, 19 citizens were hanged.
Reverend Hale enters the play in Act 1 as the witch hunter who Parris has summoned to examine his daughter Betty. Miller describes Hale’s character as an “eager-eyed intellectual” (Miller, 1954, page 37) who has pride for his education and authority over others. Hale enters the play carrying a large bundle of books and projected great knowledge which increased his authority in The Crucible enabling him to encourage and probe people for confessions and testimony’s. However, over the course of the play, Hale experienced an identity change and after listening to Mary Warren and John Proctor he becomes convinced that they are telling the truth, not Abigail. Reverend Hales realises that his beliefs have been manipulated and that the court have been sending innocents to their death. Hale becomes frustrated with the injustice of punishments afflicting the innocents and is forced to question himself, the church and his beliefs. Reverend Hale exclaims, “There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head!”(Act 4). The ‘blood’ that is on Hale’s ‘head’ is a reflection on the innocent lives that have been condemned and lost due to his unknowing help. In the end, Reverend Hale was too afraid to rock the boat, he was too complacent; never wanting to upset the other judges or the Salem community, when he could have stood up for the innocent and try to destroy and prevent the churches obvious corruption.
In direct contrast to Abigail and Reverend Hale, is Rebecca Nurse. Goody Nurse is held with tremendous regard by most of the Salem community. She is so highly looked upon that even no-Salem dwellers such as Reverend Hale have heard about her pure intentions. Hale states in Act 1, “It’s strange how I knew you, but I suppose you look as such a good soul should. We have all heard of your great charities in Beverly.’ Throughout the play, Rebecca Nurse displays a high moral character and integrity through her interactions with other characters, which in the end becomes the reason she is hanged. Unlike Abigail, Rebecca Nurse held a saintly, Christian women demeanour and moral superiority from the very start. She was comfortable with her position of authority and power in the community and therefore had become accustomed to saying things without fear of reprisal due to her place in the Salem social hierarchy. Goody Nurse uses her pure integrity when she gets charged with witchcraft and chooses not to offer a false confession and become a martyr; this is a clear indication that she values her integrity and identity more than her own life.