The play is set in Salem, Massachusetts, America. The town was a relatively new settlement and a ‘barbaric frontier’ to the European world. Residents believed that they could show the world that their way of life was the correct way to live. The society was very strict; enjoyment was forbidden and not expected. There were no novelists, this meant few people wrote about how they lived at the time and so we can only vaguely interpret how they lived.
There was no celebration at Christmas or holidays, only small celebration if a new farmhouse was built. People in the village were very hard working and religious and a holiday from work meant a day of prayer. The edge of the wilderness was close by and had occasionally marauding, Indian tribes living there. They believed there were persecuted as their ancestors were, and that the devils last preserve was the forest.
The audience can see why a witch-hunt in the town caused so much gossiping and eruptions between people, as there was little events in the town in everyday life. The witch-hunt allowed those in the village to express their dislike for others; long held hatreds could now be openly expressed and revenge could be taken on members of the society. Ordinary, gossiping folk could speak aloud all they had ever heard.
Arthur Miller wrote the play at the time in which it affected him and when he had first hand experience. Belief in witchcraft spread throughout America. At the time the play was written, there was an organization called the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Joseph McCarthy, whom could investigate anyone they considered a treat to the state. This could be a communist or someone with communist sympathies. McCarthyism was the belief that communism may destroy the American way of life and capitalism itself. People were questioned about people they had met ten or twenty years earlier.
Liberal writers, film directors and actors were particularly accused. In 1956, Miller appeared before the committee. They had papers that he had signed; he was asked to confess to signing his name! Miller wrote the play to highlight the fact that simply knowing someone or speaking to them could result in communist accusations. This could result in death and it is only recently that people realised how wrong this is. Being a friend with someone does not mean you instantly agree with all his or her morals.
The play mostly consists of trials and prosecutions in Salem. All accusations are to do with witchcraft and dealings with the devil. Abigail was caught dancing in the woods with several other girls and was seen, naked, by her uncle whilst she was drinking blood. We see that Abigail lies frequently and there is evidence of this as she denies witchcraft at the beginning of the play and says they were only dancing in the woods. The village hears of the incident and many people become suspicious of Abigail. Abigail does not want anyone to find the truth.
No sooner has the incident happened, Abigail takes control telling the other girls to say they only danced. For this, they will only be whipped – for witchcraft; they ‘will be hanged like they done in Boston two year ago!’ Abigail starts to get violent in her defence as some other girls say they should tell the truth. She threatens the others, ‘Let either of you breathe a word, about anything other than dancing, and I will come to you in the black of a terrible night, with a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.’ This blackmail frightens the girls to silence. Abigail assures the girls she could do this as she knows what happened when recalling the night her parents were killed by Indians.
After the conjuring, Abigail’s cousin, Betty, is taken ill and is thought to be dead in spirit. Abigail’s uncle, Reverend Parris decides to question Abigail on the incidents of the woods. He is concerned for the welfare of his daughter who is thought to be dead in spirit and so sends for an expert, Reverend Hale. Even at such a tense moment of life and death, Abigail acts in a selfish way. Abigail defends herself and denies anything soiled in her character when Rev. Parris questions,