What are the changes observed in Reverend Hale from Act One and two, into Act three and four in terms of agonizing guilt?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Guilt plays a large role in the arc of Hale's development.  The first act shows little of this, as Hale is completely convinced in the authenticity of what he is doing and how it must be advanced.  He is certain that the devil runs unapprehended in Salem and that his role is to find this force and extricate the town from this with extreme prejudice.

The flickers of guilt begin to emerge in the second act with the sense of wonderment and questioning about the direction of the proceedings and arrests.  Of all the characters Hale interacts with in the drama, he is most touched and impressed with Rebecca Nurse, a woman whose reputation enabled her to be immediately recognized and singled out for praise by Hale upon his arrival into Salem.  When she is arrested, it is the first sign that Hale wonders about what he is doing and the potential for guilt that is associated with, indicating that his hand "trembled" at signing the paperwork for her arrest and incarceration.  When Elizabeth is arrested, Hale is less than full- throated in his words to John that everything will turn out fine.

In Act III, Hale is censured from the trial proceedings because he recognizes their fraudulent nature, and this enables his guilt to emerge in full force.  Hale recognizes in the drama's final act that his own actions helped to bring about this miscarriage of justice and the loss of life that goes along with it.  His desire to get those accused to eventually lie in the name of sparing their lives is representative of his guilt.  One of the most interesting elements to Hale's character is that he is unwilling to live with uncertainty and doubt, along with the guilt that is a part of the modern predicament.  Even until the final scene, Hale is still convinced that if he can save lives by compelling individuals to lie, it will be a greater good, something that can alleviate his own sense of agony and guilt about the role he played in the proceedings.  It is guilt that becomes the final motivator in Hale's development, to a point where he has to be repudiated by Proctor.  It is in this last scene where we see that Hale must learn to live with his own guilt and his own role in what happened, marking his own "crucible" that he must endure as Proctor marches off to die.