[A] person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.
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 in Salem.
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. . . .
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 of 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 private lives.
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.