The Crucible (32809)

Certain works of literature are written to be cautionary tales. Fables, parables, and Greek tragedies all contain messages and morals that advise against particular behaviors: gluttony, prejudice, and hubris, to name a few. Characters in these kinds of works who display these qualities (sometimes referred to as a "fatal flaw") will inevitably reach a tragic end. Other stories simply become cautionary tales because of the terrible things that happen to the characters in them.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet ends in the tragic deaths of two teenagers, and may seem like a story that warns against disobeying one's parents, or making crazy plans that involve fake suicide, or falling in love too young and too fast (way, way, way too fast, but this article isn't trying to judge them), but the first lines of the play seem to suggest something different entirely. The play's preamble (in rarity in Shakespeare's tragedies) references how The Montague's "ancient grudge" with the Capulets leads to "new mutiny" and warns against "civil blood" that makes "civil hands unclean." The preamble also calls young Romeo and Juliet "star-crossed lovers" indicating that their tragic endings are not in fact the result of their own doing, but instead something fated, something out of their hands.

That something is, of course, their parents' "ancient grudge." The play tells us that both houses are "alike in dignity" so the problem between them does not seem to stem from a disparity in wealth or class. In fact, the source of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets is never actually revealed, likely because the reason for their mutual hatred is irrelevant. Any dispute so intense that it ultimately results in two innocent teenagers dying is, by definition, ridiculous. Romeo and Juliet warns not of the dangers of youthful indiscretion (or inefficient message delivery) but of "adult" prejudice.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible contains a similar message. Though his play about the Salem witch trials is actually an allegory for 20th century McCarthyism, he chose that comparison because both events came about due to dangerous prejudices and a mob mentality. Of course, the senseless deaths that resulted due to the Salem witch trials are much more tragic than the blacklistings and deportations of the McCarthy era, Miller warned about the dangers of unfairly targeting one individual or group of individuals and making her/them scapegoats.

The Montagues and Capulets are rarely compared to the House Un-American Activities Committee or the people of Salem, Massachussets, circa 1692, they are linked by their inability to move past their preconceived notions and think about who could be hurt.

Though William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet nearly four hundred years before Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (though the actual Salem witch trials took place about a century after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet), it seems that the human race has not yet been able to learn that preexisting notions about a particular person due to gender, religion, race, political affiliations or family ties will result in tragedy.