Summary: Act IV
How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
That fall, Danforth and Hathorne visit a Salem jail to see Parris. Parris, worn and gaunt, greets them. They demand to know why Reverend Hale has returned to Salem. Parris assures them that Hale only wants to persuade the holdout prisoners to confess and save themselves from the gallows. He reports that Abigail and Mercy vanished from Salem after robbing him. Hale now appears, haggard and sorrowful. He begs the men to pardon the prisoners because the prisoners will not confess. Danforth replies that postponement or pardons will cast doubt not only on the guilt of the seven remaining prisoners but also on that of the twelve who have hanged already. Hale warns that the officials are courting rebellion. As a result of the trials, cows are wandering loose, crops are rotting in the fields, and orphans are wandering without supervision. Many homes have fallen into neglect because their owners were in jail or had to attend the proceedings. Everyone lives in fear of being accused of witchcraft, and there are rumors of revolt in nearby Andover.
Hale has not yet spoken to Proctor. Danforth hopes that Elizabeth can persuade him to confess. Elizabeth agrees to speak with Proctor, but she makes no promises. Everyone leaves the room to allow Elizabeth and Proctor privacy. Elizabeth tells Proctor that almost one hundred people have confessed to witchcraft. She relates that Giles was killed by being pressed to death by large stones, though he never pleaded guilty or not guilty to the charges against him. Had he denied the charges, the court would have hanged him, and he would have forfeited his property. He decided not to enter a plea, so that his farm would fall to his sons. In order to force him to enter a plea, the court tortured him on the press, but he continually refused, and the weight on his chest eventually became so great that it crushed him. His last words were “more weight.”
Proctor asks Elizabeth if she thinks that he should confess. He says that he does not hold out, like Rebecca and Martha, because of religious conviction. Rather, he does so out of spite because he wants his persecutors to feel the weight of guilt for seeing him hanged when they know he is innocent.
After wrestling with his conscience for a long time, Proctor agrees to confess. Hathorne and Danforth are overjoyed and Cheever grabs paper, pen, and ink to write the confession. Proctor asks why it has to be written. Danforth informs him that it will be hung on the church door.
The men bring Rebecca to witness Proctor’s confession, hoping that she will follow his example. The sight of Rebecca shames Proctor. He offers his confession, and Danforth asks him if he ever saw Rebecca Nurse in the devil’s company. Proctor states that he did not. Danforth reads the names of the condemned out loud and asks if he ever saw any of them with the devil. Proctor again replies in the negative. Danforth pressures him to name other guilty parties, but Proctor declares that he will speak only about his own sins.
Proctor hesitates to sign the confession, saying that it is enough that the men have witnessed him admitting his alleged crimes. Under pressure, he signs his name but snatches the sheet from Danforth. Danforth demands the confession as proof to the village of Proctor’s witchcraft. Proctor refuses to allow him to nail the paper with his name on the church door and, after arguing with the magistrates, tears the confession in two and renounces it. Danforth calls for the marshal. Herrick leads the seven condemned prisoners, including Proctor, to the gallows. Hale and Parris plead with Elizabeth to remonstrate with Proctor, but she refuses to sway him from doing what he believes is just.
Not long afterward, Parris is voted out of office. He leaves Salem, never to be heard from again. Rumors have it that Abigail became a prostitute in Boston. Elizabeth remarries a few years after her husband’s execution. In
Months have passed, and things are falling apart in Massachusetts, making Danforth and Hathorne increasingly insecure. They do not want to, and ultimately cannot, admit that they made a mistake in signing the death warrants of the nineteen convicted, so they hope for confessions from the remaining prisoners to insulate them from accusations of mistaken verdicts. Danforth cannot pardon the prisoners, despite Hale’s pleas and his obvious doubts about their guilt, because he does not want to “cast doubt” on the justification of the hangings of the twelve previously condemned and on the sentence of hanging for the seven remaining prisoners. In the twisted logic of the court, it would not be “fair” to the twelve already hanged if the seven remaining prisoners were pardoned. Danforth prioritizes a bizarre, abstract notion of equality over the tangible reality of potential innocence.
Clearly, the most important issue for the officials of the court is the preservation of their reputations and the integrity of the court. As a theocratic institution, the court represents divine, as well as secular, justice. To admit to twelve mistaken hangings would be to question divine justice and the very foundations of the state and of human life. The integrity of the court would be shattered, and the reputations of court officials would fall with it. Danforth and Hathorne would rather preserve the appearance of justice than threaten the religious and political order of Salem.
Danforth and Hathorne’s treatment of Proctor reveals an obsessive need to preserve the appearance of order and justify their actions as well as a hypocritical attitude about honesty. They want Proctor to sign a confession that admits his own status as a witch, testifies to the effect that he saw the other six prisoners in the company of the devil, and completely corroborates the court’s findings. While they seek to take advantage of Proctor’s reputation for honesty in order to support their claims of having conducted themselves justly, Danforth and Hathorne are wholly unwilling to believe Proctor when he says that he has conducted himself justly.
Proctor’s refusal to take part in the ritual transfer of guilt that has dominated the play—the naming of other “witches”—separates him from the rest of the accused. His unwillingness to sign his name to the confession results in part from his desire not to dishonor his fellow prisoners’ decisions to stand firm. More important, however, Proctor fixates on his name and on how it will be destroyed if he signs the confession. Proctor’s desire to preserve his good name earlier keeps him from testifying against Abigail, leading to disastrous consequences. Now, however, he has finally come to a true understanding of what a good reputation means, and his defense of his name, in the form of not signing the confession, enables him to muster the courage to die heroically. His goodness and honesty, lost during his affair with Abigail, are recovered.