Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994
Witchcraft Arises in Salem Village (Act 1): The play opens in the attic of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. His daughter, Betty, is in a comatose state. The night before, Parris had found Betty, his niece Abigail, his slave Tituba, and a group of other local girls dancing in the woods. Parris is bewildered by the dancing and worries that Betty’s involvement will reflect poorly on him in the eyes of his parishioners. Talk of witchcraft has spread, and much of village has gathered outside Parris’s home. Abigail enters, and Parris asks her whether the previous night’s dancing involved any witchcraft; she denies it.
Thomas and Ann Putnam, a wealthy local couple, enter and inquire about Betty’s condition. They ask, too, about Parris’s hiring of a demonologist. Parris shares that he has called upon Reverend John Hale, an expert in witchcraft from the town of Beverly. Parris and the Putnams discuss the possibility that there is a broader curse afoot in Salem. Mrs. Putnam is eager to attribute the deaths of seven of her children to witchcraft. The three leave, and Mercy and Mary, two of the other girls who danced, arrive. It is revealed that the girls were attempting to conjure spirits with the help of Tituba. After Betty wakens in a panic, Abigail convinces the girls to report that they were simply dancing in the woods the night before.
John Proctor, a local farmer, arrives and orders Mary, his servant, to return home. Proctor and Abigail discuss the reports of witchcraft, and Abigail explains that she and the other girls were merely dancing. As they talk, it becomes clear that Abigail is infatuated with Proctor and that the two of them had an affair while she was serving in his household seven months earlier. Abigail still maintains feelings for him. He underscores that the affair is over and rebukes her when she disparages his wife, Elizabeth.
Parris, the Putnams, and local elders Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey enter. Nurse tries to reason with the others, insisting that witchcraft is highly unlikely; Proctor shares her perspective. Reverend Hale arrives and begins to investigate, examining Betty. Guided by his questioning, the group fills him in on the previous night’s events. Abigail claims Tituba fed her blood; Tituba counters that Abigail requested her help with a curse. As the room heats up in a frenzy, Tituba succumbs to accusations of witchcraft and, guided by the others, accuses local women Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn of bewitching her. Abigail, in an effort to conceal her attempt to curse Elizabeth Proctor, joins Tituba and in a pretended fit accuses Good and Osburn as well. Betty wakens and mimics Abigail, and the two of them fitfully cast out more names.
Names are Named (Act 2): The second act takes place in the Proctor home. John and Elizabeth discuss the recent accusations, which have claimed forty people and riven Salem. John is torn by his knowledge that the accusations are false; Abigail admitted this truth to him, but only in private. Furthermore, their romantic past jeopardizes John’s leverage. When John discusses this with Elizabeth, she is surprised to hear that John and Abigail were alone together; she is aware of the affair and reminds John of his impropriety. Mary Warren arrives, having been at court and thus, to John’s frustration, shirking her household duties. Mary claims that her role as witness is important and that she must continue to attend court. She then gives Elizabeth a “poppet,” or doll, she constructed while sitting at court and goes to bed.
Reverend Hale arrives, also having been at court. He reports that Elizabeth Proctor’s name has been mentioned in court and that he has come to interview her. Hale cites the Proctors’ infrequent church attendance as a cause for concern. John mentions Elizabeth’s long illness the prior winter and expresses his distaste for Parris’s sermons before underscoring his piety. Hale asks John to recite the Ten Commandments. When John cites only nine, forgetting “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” Hale grows unsettled. Elizabeth tells Hale that John has evidence of the girls’ fraudulence, but Hale is unmoved, because many of the accused have already confessed. John counters that confession is a strategy to avoid hanging, a point which Hale concedes.
Giles Corey and Francis Nurse show up to tell the Proctors that their wives, Martha and Rebecca, have been accused and arrested. Ezekiel Cheever and George Herrick, both representing the court, arrive with a warrant for Elizabeth’s arrest. They ask Elizabeth if she has any poppets. She claims not to, but they spy the poppet Mary gave her and grow alarmed when they find a needle in it. Elizabeth explains that Mary just gave it to her. Unconvinced, Cheever reports that during the day’s court proceedings, Abigail fell into a pained fit, claiming that Elizabeth was pricking her with a needle using witch magic. The Proctors call in Mary, who verifies that she herself made and delivered the poppet. Mary is unable to cope with the questioning that falls on her, not realizing that either Elizabeth or Abigail are at fault. John Proctor grows enraged that Hale, Cheever, and Herrick place so much faith in the accusers, particularly Abigail. He sees no reason why accusers ought to be trusted any more than the accused. When Cheever and Herrick insist on taking Elizabeth in, John rips the warrant to shreds. Elizabeth is taken away, and John accuses Hale of cowardice for deferring to a corrupt process. As the act comes to a close, John insists that Mary come to court with him to clear Elizabeth’s name.
The Depositions (Act 3): A month has passed, and the court is in full session. Giles and Francis interrupt the court proceedings to defend their wives. The presiding judges, Danforth and Hathorne, call for the court to adjourn and send Giles and Francis to a side room, where they follow. John Proctor shows up soon afterwards with Mary Warren and explains the nature of Abigail and the other girls’ lies to the judges. Danforth, attempting to discourage Proctor from pursuing his case, tells him that Elizabeth is pregnant and therefore will be exempt from trial for a year.
Proctor, undeterred, presents a deposition that attests to the good characters of Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, and Elizabeth Proctor; the document is signed by ninety-one townspeople. Danforth and, to a greater degree, Hathorne are offended by the gesture, considering it contempt for the court. John Hale, having changed his overall stance, challenges the judges and asks why the accused have had no opportunity to properly defend their characters. Danforth claims that the presence of witchcraft undermines the validity of the accused; with spirits afoot speaking through them, they cannot be trusted. Giles Corey offers his own deposition, which proves—through anonymous an eye-witness source—that Thomas Putnam sought to frame Martha Corey as part of a larger conspiracy to seize Corey lands. When Giles refuses to give the name of his source, he is arrested for contempt of the court.
John Proctor Brings Forth Another Deposition: Mary’s written account of Abigail’s lies and coercions. Abigail denies the allegations, and Mary struggles under the weight of questioning. She is asked to account for her apparently possessed behavior in court, which she deems an act, but she cannot replicate the act on her own. Proctor, sensing the upper hand Abigail is gaining, attacks her character, calling her a whore with an agenda to dispose of Elizabeth. In the process, he makes public his affair with Abigail. Danforth calls in Elizabeth to inquire into the truth of the affair. Ordering John to remain silent, he asks Elizabeth why she fired Abigail. Elizabeth, trying not to smear John’s name, refrains from discussing the affair. Danforth dismisses her and takes her silence as evidence of John’s lying. Hale tries to convince Danforth that Elizabeth was merely trying to spare John’s reputation, but Danforth ignores him.
Abigail begins to behave theatrically, staring up at the ceiling as if gripped by a spirit and claiming to see a yellow bird looming in the rafters. Moreover, she speaks to the bird as if it were Mary’s spirit embodied; the other girls join Abigail in her charade. Mary, in confusion, protests, but every word she utters is immediately mimicked by the group of seditious brats. Mary grows increasingly desperate, especially when Danforth, swayed by the spectacle, begins to threaten Mary and accuse her of witchcraft. Mary, seemingly unable to discern fact from fiction, joins with the girls. Encouraged by Abigail and Reverend Parris, Mary confesses by claiming that John Proctor possessed her. In a rage, John curses Danforth and the rest of the court to hell as they arrest him. John Hale is also enraged and voices his disgust with the entire sham.
Proctor’s Dilemma (Act 4): It is now autumn, and the cells are stocked with the accused as they await their fate. Two hundred townspeople have been accused. Each accused individual is given a choice: confess to having been gripped by the devil and face prison time and loss of property or refuse to confess and be hanged. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority have confessed. Twelve have been hanged, and seven more—including John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse—have kept silent and are preparing to be hanged in the morning. Giles Corey received the singular fate of being pressed to death with stones for having refused to plead either guilty or not guilty, which he did in order to maintain his property and pass it along his sons. His final words were, “More weight.”
Danforth and Hathorne arrive at the prison to process the final seven accused. Parris and Hale are both present, both gripped by various degrees of regret. Parris has become a pariah for having sparked the witch hunt. Hale has returned to convince the final seven to confess, driven as he is by his own shame for helping to advance the witch hunts that he now utterly denounces. Parris informs the assembled men that Abigail and Mercy have escaped in the night. Hale tries to convince Danforth that Abigail’s fleeing is evidence of her fraudulence. Danforth refuses to acknowledge Hale’s claim, true as it may be, for fear that the twelve people who have been hanged have died in vain. In his view, the course must be continued. Danforth and Hale turn their attention to John Proctor, who they hope will confess. To that end, Danforth sends Elizabeth to John’s cell to convince him to confess. John and Elizabeth discuss their predicament. Elizabeth maintains that the decision to confess or not is entirely John’s and that she will not judge him either way. John feels himself to be a wicked man and thus determines that a silent march to the gallows would be a kind of false martyrdom. Elizabeth tells John that he is a good man and that her own actions have been questionable; as she says, “it needs a cold wife to prompt lechery.”
Having thus reconciled with Elizabeth, John determines to confess and live. The judges are thrilled, and Danforth summons Cheever to take John’s confession. John offers a clipped confession, hesitates before signing, and then grows enraged at the prospect of having his confession nailed to the church door as a public example. Danforth reasons with him, explaining that everyone will know his choice anyway, but John’s rage does not abate. He tears up his confession and changes his decision, thereby sending himself to the gallows to be hanged. The play ends as Elizabeth stares out of the window of her cell as John is executed outside. She is sorrowful but confident that he made the right choice.
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