The Contradictions of Social Hierarchy
While Elizabeth is mostly oppressed in the gender politics of the play, she has power when viewed as a farmer’s wife. In Act Two, she is able to raise her head and echo Proctor’s powerful stance when addressing her servant, Mary Warren. This is clearly shown just before Elizabeth agrees to go to gaol with Cheever.
Her opening statement is delivered as a matter of fact with her head down. She then turns to Mary, puts her hands on her hips and gives her specific instructions regarding Mary’s duties in the house in a stern tone.
She then turns back to her husband and places her hands before herself, asking that he doesn’t tell the children where she is.
The change of situation has brought about changes in Elizabeth’s Haltung so that the audience can see how she acts differently when her status alters.
Yet even the power relationship between the mistress and the servant isn’t stable.
Earlier in the act, she was happy for Proctor to whip Mary in order to keep her at home and not to attend the Court regularly as a witness. She stands, as above, with hands on hips in a position of superiority.
Yet when Mary reveals that Elizabeth has been mentioned in Court, something tantamount to accusing her of witchery, Elizabeth is suddenly vulnerable and terrified.
The positions have switched, and Mary now has the upper hand, despite the social conventions of the time.
This apparent inversion is most clearly seen in the Court itself. The witnesses were treated in Act I as little more than dirt: always spoken at and down to. Here, for example, Proctor’s entrance surprises the girls and they automatically lower their heads:
By Act III, they have a conferred status from which they can seal innocent villagers’ fates. In the image, below, the gullible adults look for the apparition the girls pretend to see while the sceptical ones look accusingly at the girls themselves:
Yet this, too, is a precarious position because the girls have been raised up by those in power and can be dropped when they have outlived their usefulness. Consequently, the judges were directed both to show an amount of respect for the witnesses, but also to use the words ‘child’ and ‘children’ with an amount of scorn and disdain when referring to them.