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    “What profit him to bleed?”: the Drastic Transformation of Reverend Hale

       Real life can only rarely be defined in terms of black and white, and so, in order

for art to accurately imitate life, it must encompass the moral ambiguities that are so

common in human nature. One example of this in literature is the character of Reverend

Hale in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, who, over the course of the play, makes the

transformation from a detached ‘intellectual’ who condemns the innocent people of

Salem, to a broken man trying to resign a guilty conscience with his beliefs in God and

authority. Reverend Hale (like another of Miller’s complex characters, John Proctor)

straddles the divide between the explicitly good (characters like Elizabeth Proctor and

Rebecca Nurse) and the explicitly bad (like Abigail and Thomas Putnam.) Because of this

ambiguity, Hale is one of the most compelling characters in the play and provides a

universal example of the way an average person may react during times of suspicion and

paranoia.

       At the outset of the play, Hale is introduced as a character that, while not

necessarily evil like Putnam or Reverend Parris, can be immediately labeled as misguided

in his beliefs in the existence of witchcraft and in the influence of his own authority. Hale

realizes that the people of Salem regard him as the ultimate source of the “science of

witchcraft,” who they hope will be able to resolve all the issues beginning to arise using

wisdom from his past experiences (“...he spent a good deal of his time pondering the

invisible world, especially since he had himself encountered a witch in his parish not long

before”) and the indisputable evidence he claims to bring with him in books that are

“weighted with authority” (pg. 33, 36). While he is almost instantly respected by the

Salem community, Miller’s lengthy introduction lets on that Hale is not nearly as
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knowledgeable as he seems. Instead, he is naïve and so obsessed with the prospect of

having the power to determine if witchcraft has come to Salem that he also believes he

has the power to stop it should things get out of hand—which, as seen later in the play, is

certainly not the case. This confident belief in his own power (“You must have no fear to

us who they are…We will protect you. The Devil can never overcome a minister”) allows

Hale to condemn respectable residents of Salem that insiders would never think to attack,

under the guise of imposing the will of God on a cursed community (pg 46). Because of

this, the reader often associates Hale with the evil characters in the play—Putnam, Parris,

and to a certain extent the likes of Cheever, who condemns John Proctor not out of

malice but of a self-perceived duty to reveal all truth to figures of authority—because he

is effectively helping to bring down characters that Miller has presented in a sympathetic

light.

         However, as Salem makes the transition from order to chaos, so do many of the

characters who are originally rigid in their convictions. Hale makes a dramatic

transformation in Acts III and IV as he realizes he is partially at fault for allowing the

madness of the trials to continue as long as they do, and to sentence death upon as many

as they did. Hale’s assurance in his ability to interpret the will of God (“Woman, before

the laws of God we are as swine! We cannot read His will!”) has disintegrated into

desperate, last-ditch efforts to stop the machine he himself had put into motion, which has

now mutated beyond his control (pg 132). His sense of confidence from the first acts is

noticeably depleted, and so is his confidence in the infallibility of authority. When

confronted now by Judge Danforth, Hale is forthrightly belligerent, rather than trusting:

“If you think God wills you to raise rebellion, Mr. Danforth, you are mistaken!” (pg 130).
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Hale’s subsequent breakdown in the final act casts him in an entirely different light than

the naïve newcomer of the first scenes, and his conversation with Elizabeth Proctor

reveals the extent to which he feels the “blood on his head” for the impending deaths of

Proctor and Nurse and his fear of God’s wrath over the sins he has unwittingly

committed: “I have gone …like our Lord into the wilderness…damnation’s doubled on a

minister who counsels men to lie” (pg 132). Hale’s drastic conversion adds yet another

shade of frustration to the final act; by the time the reader has come over to Hale’s side,

nothing within his power can be done to save Proctor and Nurse from their cruel fates.

       On a literal level, Hale’s words and actions at this point in the play are significant

in their own right, but the influence of Hale’s moral ambiguity on the work as a whole

extends even beyond this literal interpretation. What is most significant, perhaps, about

Hale’s transformation is the fact that Hale is effectively the personification of the

religious authority that defines Salem. Therefore, Hale’s breakdown also symbolizes the

breakdown of the Puritan community as all of its inherent flaws and hypocrisies are

exposed. The purpose of the rigidity of Puritan society was to protect its adherents from

sin; ironically, these rigidities are what push many of the characters, including the

accusers and Proctor, to name a few, towards it. By the end of Act IV, all the Puritan

values Hale has been sent to protect are meaningless in the face of his realization that he

is sending an innocent man to death. As he says to Elizabeth Proctor in one of the most

climactic moments of the play: “Life, woman, life is God’s most precious gift; no

principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it,” and then, as he realizes that

there is nothing anyone can do to save Proctor from death, his desperate exclamation:

“Woman! It is pride, it is vanity…Be his helper!—What profit him to bleed?” (pg 132,
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145). By this point, Hale has completely discarded his faith in authority (including his

own) to interpret God’s will and to do what is right, and along with Hale’s declaration,

the community devolves into chaos.

        As Miller describes in his original depiction of Hale, “the necessity of the Devil

may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed…to whip men into a surrender…”

(pg 34). This is certainly true in Salem, but, once again, it is not the devil who ends up

destroying the community and bringing about the apocalyptic scenes Hale describes in

Act IV, it is the people of Salem, who are releasing years of internalized tension in the

form of the entity they have been taught to fear more than anything else. Herein lies the

genius of the play: this concept is not solely applicable to a seventeenth-century Puritan

society whose collective devil is, literally, the devil. Rather, the devil can be any

influence which prompts these disseminations of fear and paranoia, whether it be a fear

of Hell or a fear of another country or another system of government, like in Miller’s era

of the Red Scare; it is anything that can cause neighbor to turn against neighbor.

        In conclusion, Reverend Hale is one of the most complex characters in The

Crucible. In fact, Hale is so complex that the reader is left not entirely certain how to feel

about him. What persona of Hale is more lasting: the naïve minister “bearing gifts of high

religion” or the godforsaken man who has cast off all the pretenses of his position and his

society (pg 132)? It is a matter entirely left up to interpretation, but if anything is certain,

it is that the final act of the play haunts the reader even after the cover has been closed;

perhaps because of the tragedy of the situation, or perhaps because we have more in

common with Reverend Hale—his virtues, his flaws, and the realism of depicting them

both together—than we care to admit.

				
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posted:12/1/2011
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