[A] person is either with this court or
he must be counted against it, there be no road between.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
Back in Salem, the court is in session. Giles interrupts
the proceedings by shouting that Putnam is only making a grab for
more land. He claims to have evidence to back up this assertion.
Judge Hathorne, Deputy Governor Danforth, and the Reverends Hale and
Parris join Giles and Francis in the vestry room to get to the bottom
of the matter. Proctor and Mary Warren enter the room. Mary testifies
that she and the other girls were only pretending to be afflicted
by witchcraft. Judge Danforth, shocked, asks Proctor if he has told
the village about Mary’s claims. Parris declares that they all want
to overthrow the court.
Danforth asks Proctor if he is attempting to undermine
the court. Proctor assures him that he just wants to free his wife,
but Cheever informs the judge that Proctor ripped up the warrant
for Elizabeth’s arrest. Danforth proceeds to question Proctor about
his religious beliefs. He is particularly intrigued by the information,
offered by Parris, that Proctor only attends church about once a
month. Cheever adds that Proctor plows on Sunday, a serious offense
Danforth and Hathorne inform Proctor that he need not
worry about Elizabeth’s imminent execution because she claims to
be pregnant. She will not be hanged until after she delivers. Danforth
asks if he will drop his condemnation of the court, but Proctor
refuses. He submits a deposition signed by ninety-one land-owning
farmers attesting to the good characters of Elizabeth, Martha, and
Rebecca. Parris insists that they all be summoned for questioning
because the deposition is an attack on the court. Hale asks why
every defense is considered an attack on the court.
Putnam is led into the room to answer to an allegation
by Giles that he prompted his daughter to accuse George Jacobs of
witchcraft. Should Jacobs hang, he would forfeit his property, and
Putnam is the only person in Salem with the money to purchase such
a tract. Giles refuses to name the man who gave him the information because
he does not want to open him to Putnam’s vengeance. Danforth arrests
Giles for contempt of court.
Danforth sends for Abigail and her troop of girls. Abigail
denies Mary’s testimony, as well as her explanation for the doll
in the Proctor home. Mary maintains her assertion that the girls
are only pretending. Hathorne asks her to pretend to faint for them.
Mary says she cannot because she does not have “the sense of it”
now. Under continued pressure, she falters and explains that she
only thought she saw spirits. Danforth pressures Abigail to be truthful.
Abigail shivers and the other girls follow suit. They accuse Mary
of bewitching them with a cold wind.
Proctor leaps at Abigail and calls her a whore. He confesses
his affair with her and explains that Elizabeth fired her when she
discovered it. He claims that Abigail wants Elizabeth to hang so
that she can take her place in his home. Danforth orders Abigail
and Proctor to turn their backs, and he sends for Elizabeth, who
is reputed by Proctor to be unfailingly honest. Danforth asks why
she fired Abigail. Elizabeth glances at Proctor for a clue, but
Danforth demands that she look only at him while she speaks. Elizabeth claims
to have gotten the mistaken notion that Proctor fancied Abigail,
so she lost her temper and fired the girl without just cause. As
marshal, Herrick removes Elizabeth from the room. Proctor cries out
that he confessed his sin, but it is too late for Elizabeth to change her
story. Hale begs Danforth to reconsider, stating that Abigail has always
struck him as false.
Abigail and the girls begin screaming that Mary is sending
her spirit at them. Mary pleads with them to stop, but the girls
repeat her words verbatim. The room erupts into a hectic frenzy
of fear, excitement, and confusion. Mary seems to become infected
with the hysteria of the other girls and starts screaming too. Proctor
tries to touch her, but she dashes away from him, calling him the
devil’s man. She accuses him of consorting with the devil and pressuring her
to join him in his evil ways. Danforth orders Proctor’s arrest against
Hale’s vocal opposition. Hale denounces the proceedings and declares
that he is quitting the court.
It is a whore’s vengeance. . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)
The desperate attempt by Giles, Proctor, and Francis to
save their respective wives exposes the extent to which the trials
have become about specific individuals and institutions struggling
to maintain power and authority. Deputy Governor Danforth and Judge Hathorne
do not want to admit publicly that they were deceived by a bunch
of young women and girls, while Parris does not want the trials
to end as a fraud because the scandal of having a lying daughter
and niece would end his career in Salem. Predictably, the judge and
the deputy governor react to Proctor’s claims by accusing him of trying
to undermine “the court,” which, in theocratic Salem, is tantamount
to undermining God himself.
In order to dispose of Proctor’s threat, Danforth and
Hathorne exercise their power to invade his privacy. Although Proctor
has not yet been formally accused of witchcraft, Danforth and Hathorne, like
Hale earlier, question him about his Christian morals as though he
were already on trial. They hope to find in his character even the slightest
deviation from Christian doctrine because they would then be able
to cast him as an enemy of religion. Once thus labeled, Proctor
would have virtually no chance of anyone in God-fearing Salem intervening
on his behalf.
The reaction of Danforth and Hathorne to the deposition
signed by ninety-one land-owning citizens further demonstrates the
power of the court to invade the private lives of citizens, and
indicates the extent to which the court believes in guilt by association.
In the witch trials, guilt need not be proven by hard evidence,
and signing a deposition attesting to the good character of the
accused is enough to put oneself under the same suspicion of guilt.
Over the protests of Francis, Danforth states that the signers should
have nothing to worry about if they are innocent. The desire for
privacy becomes an automatic sign of guilt. Revealingly, Parris
states that the goal of the trials is to find precisely what is
not seen—in both the supernatural realm and the realm of people’s
During a bout of hysteria such as the witch trials, authority
and power fall to those who can avoid questioning while forcing
others to speak. By virtue of their rank, Danforth and Hathorne
have the authority to cast any questions put to them as an attack
on the court. Similarly, Abigail responds to Proctor’s charges of
harlotry with a refusal to answer questions. Although Danforth’s
patience with her presumptuous manner is limited, the fact that
a young girl can so indignantly refuse to answer a direct question
from a court official indicates that she possesses an unusual level
of authority for her age and gender.
Much of Act III has to do with determining who will define
innocence and guilt. Proctor makes one desperate bid for this authority by
finally overcoming his desire to protect his good name, exposing his
own secret sin. He hopes to replace his wife’s alleged guilt with his
own guilt and bring down Abigail in the process. Unfortunately, he
mistakes the proceedings for an actual search for the guilty, when,
in fact, the proceedings are better described as a power struggle.
He exposes his private life to scrutiny, hoping to gain some authority,
but he does not realize that too many influential people have invested
energy into the proceedings for him to be able to stop them now.
Too many reputations are at stake, and Proctor’s revelation comes
too late to stop the avalanche.