In the crucible of the Salem witch trials, courage and personal integrity are relentlessly challenged as the witch hunt intensifies and the community is gripped with fear—the fear of witches living among them and the fear of being charged, convicted, and hanged for practicing witchcraft. Those who don’t believe that Salem is being attacked by demonic forces are just as fearful as those who do, because no one in Salem is safe from being called out as a witch and executed. To save their lives, many who are charged give false confessions and name others as being in league with the devil; by confessing, they make the work of the court seem legitimate.
Some members of the community, however, refuse to lie; they will not give the court a false confession, even under the threat of death. They choose instead to act with courage and preserve their personal integrity. Among them are John and Elizabeth Proctor and Rebecca Nurse.
Elizabeth and Rebecca are good women whose reputations in Salem are above reproach; that they are charged with witchcraft is indicative of the hysteria in Salem. Elizabeth is terrified when she is arrested at the her and her husband's farm, chained, and taken into Salem to be imprisoned and then tried for witchcraft. During her imprisonment, it becomes evident that she is pregnant, and proceedings against her are delayed until her child is born.
Elizabeth suffers terribly in the jail, but she will not lie by making a false confession. In the miserable jail with Elizabeth is Rebecca Nurse, an elderly resident of Salem known for the excellence of her character and her strong religious faith. Already condemned to death, Rebecca, too, refuses to confess. The morning of her execution, Rebecca is weak from hunger and stumbles as she is led to the gallows, but her courage does not fail, and she dies in her faith, her integrity secure.
Unlike Elizabeth and Rebecca, when John Proctor is arrested and imprisoned, initially he does confess to witchcraft in order to live. Since John believes there is no goodness in him, lying only affirms what he already believes about himself. “I am no good man,” he tells Elizabeth. “Nothing’s spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before.” Under great duress, John signs his confession, but he refuses to give it to Judge Danforth and Reverend Parris to post in the village, and he will not name anyone as having conspired with the devil.
He will not “blacken” those who are about to hang because they would not betray their convictions. John chooses instead to die. His integrity intact, John courageously tears up his confession and is amazed to see “some shred of goodness” in himself. “Not enough,” he says, “to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.”
A different kind of courage and personal integrity is found in Giles Corey and Reverend Hale. A stubborn old man with a strong sense of integrity, Giles refuses to even answer the charge when he is accused of witchcraft. By refusing to answer, he cannot be tried by the court, and his land cannot be confiscated. With great courage, Giles accepts his fate—to be pressed with heavy stones laid on his chest until he answers the charge. Before he dies, Giles does speak to those who are torturing him. “More weight,” he says, no doubt with contempt.
The death of Giles Corey by pressing and the deaths of those who are hanged weigh heavily on the conscience and the soul of Reverend Hale, the minister who had come to Salem to investigate the initial suspicions of witchcraft in the village. When Hale becomes convinced that innocent people are being executed, he defies the authority of the court, quits the court in anger and despair, and leaves Salem.
Hale’s integrity, however, won’t allow him to ignore what is continuing to happen in the village. He returns to Salem and attempts to save the lives of the condemned who are yet to be hanged. “There is blood on my head! Can you not see the blood on my head!!” he cries in anguish to Judge Danforth. Hale begs the condemned to confess and save their lives, even though lying is a sin. “Beware,” he implores Elizabeth Proctor, “cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is a mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice …. no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of [life]. Abandoning a tenet of his church in order to save the innocent is Reverend Hale’s greatest act of courage.