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 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.