by Arthur Miller
Abigail is vengeful, selfish, manipulative, and a magnificent liar. This young lady seems to be uniquely gifted at spreading death and destruction wherever she goes. She has an eerie sense of how to manipulate others, to gain control over them. All these things add up to make her a marvelous antagonist.
In Act One her skills at manipulation are on full display. When she's on the brink of getting busted for dabbling in witchcraft, she skillfully manages to pin the whole thing on Tituba and several of Salem's other second-class citizens. The horrible thing is that Abigail is the one who persuaded Tituba to go out and cast the spells. Ever since Abigail's brief affair with John Proctor, she's been out to get his wife, Elizabeth. Our crafty villain convinced Tituba to put a curse on Elizabeth, hoping to get rid of her and take her place at John's side.
It's ironic that the Abigail, who encouraged the witchcraft in the first place, is the one who goes around accusing everybody else. As ringleader, she excites the other girls into a frenzy of emotion, which allows them to condemn as witches the people they know and love. She riles up the entire village’s hatred of witches, just like her 20th-century counterpart, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, riled up Americans’ hatred of communists. Abigail's main skill seems to be finding people's flaws, their weaknesses, their prejudices and mercilessly manipulating them to her advantage.
Abigail's ruthless cunning is shown again in Act Two when she frames Elizabeth Proctor for witchcraft. Later on in Act Three she seems to lose her last shred of humanity by damning John Proctor, whom she claims to love. When John attempts to expose Abigail, she skillfully manages to turn the whole thing around on him, packing him off to the slammer. Abigail rides her power trip out to the end, eventually beating town with all of her uncle's money. Yes, it seems that Abigail ranks high on the list, along with Iago and maybe Hannibal Lecter, of most skillful antagonists ever.
The character of Abigail is often accused of being one-dimensional, which is true to a certain extent. She doesn't express one shred of remorse the entire time, making her seem almost inhumanly diabolical. However, even though Abigail's actions are ruthless, they are in some ways understandable.
For one, Miller slips in an interesting detail about Abigail's childhood that gives us a clue as to where her mercilessness might stem from. When she was younger, Abigail watched both of her parents be murdered. She tells the other girls, "I saw Indians smash my dear parents' head on the pillow next to mine" (I.119). It's no surprise that a person exposed to such brutality at a young age might eventually act brutally herself.
Abigail's ruthless, manipulative tactics might also be a result of her low social position. She does have it pretty bad. She's an orphan. She's an unmarried teenager. And worst of all for her (in the patriarchal Puritan society), she's female. The only person lower than her is probably the black slave Tituba. On top of all that, Elizabeth Proctor has been going around dropping hints that Abigail is sleazy, lowering Abby's social status even more. With all this in mind, it's pretty understandable that Abigail might seize any chance to gain power.
Abigail Williams was a real person, and she did spearhead the group of girls that saw spirits and pointed out the witches in Salem’s midst. The historical version was a bit different than the fictional character, though. Arthur Miller explained that one discovery he made while digging into the actual history of the Salem Witch Trials set his imagination on fire: Abigail Williams, the mover and shaker of the witch-finding craze, had been the Proctors’ house servant for a short time. Though Abigail called Elizabeth a witch, “with uncharacteristic fastidiousness she was refusing to include John Proctor, Elizabeth’s husband, in her accusations despite the urgings of the prosecutors” (source).
While there is no actual evidence that the real John Proctor and the real Abigail Williams had an affair, Miller could find no good reason why Abigail distinguished so vehemently between the guilt of a husband and wife. Arthur Miller took creative license with her character to make the connection between sexuality and politics more dramatic. In reality though, Abigail Williams was only eleven years old at the time of the witch trials. We will always wonder why she accused Elizabeth and not John. Maybe he was just nice to her. Who knows?