In Act 3 of The Crucible, we meet the judges who have been conducting the witch trials. John Proctor and Mary Warren finally confront the court with the truth, but, as you'll see, the truth has limited currency when it doesn't align with what people have already chosen to believe. I'll include short and long summaries of Act 3, a list of the most important quotes, and a thematic analysis covering the events of this part of the play.
The Crucible Act 3 Summary — Short Version
Judge Hathorne is questioning Martha Corey off-stage. Giles Corey interrupts the proceedings to defend his wife, and he is dragged into a room off of the court (on stage) by Marshal Herrick. They are accompanied by Judge Hathorne, Governor Danforth, Reverend Parris and Reverend Hale, Francis Nurse, and Ezekiel Cheever.
After a short discussion where the truth of the accusers’ claims is disputed by Francis Nurse and Giles Corey, Mary Warren and John Proctor enter the room. Mary admits to Danforth that she and the other girls were faking the whole time. Danforth is not convinced that this is the truth based on the evidence of witchcraft he's seen in court (people being choked by familiar spirits and slashed with daggers).
Proctor presents a petition signed by 91 people who are willing to vouch for the good character of Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey. Danforth orders warrants drawn up for all the people who signed the petition. Proctor then presents a statement from Giles Corey where Corey testifies that Thomas Putnam encouraged his daughter, Ruth Putnam, to make accusations against George Jacobs so Putnam could snatch up Jacobs’ land. However, Giles refuses to reveal who gave him this information, so he is arrested for contempt of court and his accusations are dismissed.
Finally, Proctor gives Danforth Mary Warren’s statement where she admits in writing that she and the other girls were faking. The girls are brought in from the courtroom for questioning by Danforth. Abigail denies Mary’s accusations. The judges doubt Mary even more when she is unable to pretend to faint like she says she did in the courtroom. Abigail then says she feels a spirit in the room, which enrages Proctor. He calls her a whore and admits that they had an affair so that she will be discredited. Danforth brings Elizabeth Proctor in for questioning on this issue, but she covers up the affair to protect John’s reputation. She is unaware that he has already confessed. John’s accusations are subsequently dismissed.
Abigail claims to see a bird on the rafters that she insists is Mary Warren’s spirit poised to attack her. The other girls follow Abigail’s lead and gang up on Mary. A terrified Mary breaks down under the pressure of these accusations and confesses that John forced her to work for the Devil. Proctor and Corey are arrested, and Hale quits the court in disgust at this blatant display of irrationality.
You probably saw this coming. John Proctor wasn't going to get away with being so Devilishly handsome for much longer (ew sorry).
The Crucible Act 3 Summary — Long Version
This act takes place in the vestry room of Salem meeting house, which is right outside the courtroom. The audience hears Judge Hathorne questioning Martha Corey off stage (in court). He asks her a series of leading questions in an attempt to get her to confess to witchcraft. Giles Corey tries to interrupt, claiming that the accusations are just a product of Thomas Putnam’s greed for land. Giles is dragged from the courtroom and into the vestry room (on stage) by Marshal Herrick. They are followed by Francis Nurse, Reverend Hale, Judge Hathorne, Deputy Governor Danforth, Ezekiel Cheever and Reverend Parris. Danforth admonishes Giles for interrupting the court proceedings. He insists that if Giles wishes to submit evidence in his wife’s defense, he must follow procedure and submit an affidavit. Francis Nurse says he has proof that the girls are frauds. This claim is disturbing to Danforth because he has already condemned many people based on their testimony.
At this time, John Proctor leads Mary Warren into the vestry room. Mary doesn’t speak at first, but Proctor tells Danforth that she has signed a deposition indicating that she never saw any spirits. Mary hesitantly tells Danforth that the girls were faking the whole time. Danforth warns Proctor that he had better be sure this new evidence is truthful and questions him about his intentions. Proctor says he has no desire to undermine the court, and his only goal is to save his wife.
Cheever reveals that Proctor tore up the arrest warrant when they came to take his wife, and Danforth becomes suspicious again. He asks Proctor a couple of questions about his religious devotion and his lapses in church attendance, and Proctor reiterates that he hasn’t been to church lately because he hates Parris. Danforth still feels that the girls must be telling the truth because he's seen them stabbed with pins and choked by spirits in court. Proctor counters by pointing out how weird it is that all these people who always had great reputations are now suddenly being accused of witchcraft. Danforth and Hawthorne then tell John that Elizabeth is pregnant, meaning they will spare her at least until the child is born. Proctor refuses to drop his accusations of perjury against the girls even though his wife is safe. His friends' wives are still in danger, and he is determined to expose Abigail as a liar.
Danforth agrees to look at Proctor’s evidence, which is a petition signed by 91 respectable people testifying to Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, and Elizabeth Proctor’s good characters. Parris insists that those who signed the petition should be summoned for questioning. Danforth orders warrants drawn up for their arrest, to the horror of Francis Nurse, who promised the people who signed the petition that there would be no negative repercussions for them. Danforth says they should have nothing to fear if they’re truly good Christians.
Proctor then gives Danforth Giles Corey’s deposition. Corey says that Putnam told his daughter, Ruth, to accuse George Jacobs of witchcraft so Putnam could take Jacobs’ land. However, Corey refuses to tell Danforth the name of the person who gave him this information, and when Putnam is asked directly, he denies it. Hale says that Giles can’t be faulted for preserving the anonymity of his informant because everyone in town is terrified of the court. Danforth insists that innocent people have no reason to be afraid. Giles is placed under arrest for contempt of court.
Proctor tries to calm everyone down and gives Mary Warren’s deposition to Danforth. It states that she never saw the Devil or any other spirits, and the other girls are lying. Before Danforth takes the deposition, Hale tries to talk him into letting a lawyer argue Proctor’s evidence in court rather than asking Proctor to defend it alone. Danforth says witchcraft is an invisible crime, so the witch and the victim are the only real witnesses. That means only the victim is left for reliable testimony in court (since obviously the witch can't be trusted), so lawyers are unnecessary.
Upon reading the deposition, Danforth asks Mary if Proctor threatened her to get her to change her testimony. Mary says no, she is telling the truth now. Danforth orders the other girls brought into the room. Danforth informs them of the charges Mary has made against them, and Abigail denies Mary’s accusations vehemently. Proctor points out that there’s no reason for Mary to make these claims unless she’s telling the truth. He urges Mary to tell Danforth about the girls dancing in the woods. Parris is forced to admit that he discovered them dancing, and Hale corroborates. Danforth is disturbed by this information and becomes less trusting of Abigail.
Hathorne then questions Mary about her past behavior in court in light of her new testimony. Mary says she was faking when she fainted in court before. Hathorne and Parris tell Mary to pretend to faint again right now if she’s such a good actress. Mary is unable to pretend to faint outside of the courtroom environment.
Danforth asks Abigail if it’s possible that the spirits could have been all in her head. Abigail is insulted by these accusations, pointing out how much she has suffered at the hands of witches. She stops talking suddenly and claims to feel a spirit in the room. The other girls imitate her. Danforth buys into the act and immediately suspects Mary of witchcraft, which is Abigail’s intention. Mary tries to run away, fearing for her life if the other girls accuse her. Proctor stops Mary from leaving and grabs Abigail by the hair in fury, calling her a whore. He admits to their affair and explains that Abigail accused his wife of witchcraft because she wants to be with him. Danforth is horrified, and Abigail refuses to respond to the accusations, which disturbs Danforth even further.
Danforth orders Elizabeth Proctor brought in for questioning on this issue after John insists that Elizabeth is incapable of lying. John and Abigail are both forced to turn their backs to her as she is questioned, so she doesn't know that John has already confessed to the affair. Elizabeth says she dismissed Abigail because she was suspicious of Abigail’s close relationship with her husband. When questioned further, she lies and says that her suspicions were unfounded to protect John's reputation. Danforth takes this as proof that Proctor is lying about the affair and dismisses Elizabeth. Hale points out that it makes complete sense that Elizabeth would lie to protect her husband’s reputation. He believes Proctor is telling the truth.
Abigail prevents further rational conversation by pretending to see and talk to a bird that she claims is Mary Warren’s spirit. All the girls start repeating everything Mary says. Danforth once again is convinced by this charade. He pressures Mary to confess that she’s in league with the Devil. Mary is terrified for her life, so she blurts out that Proctor is the Devil’s man and has coerced her into witchcraft (to be fair, he did pressure her into changing her testimony). Danforth asks Proctor a couple of accusatory questions.
Proctor condemns Danforth for contributing to fear and ignorance by failing to expose the girls as frauds. He also blames himself for hesitating to come forward with the truth. He sees that the darker tendencies within himself and others have led to this calamity, and they will all go to Hell in the end. Danforth orders Proctor and Corey arrested and sent to jail. Hale is disgusted with the way Danforth has conducted the investigation and refuses to be a part of the proceedings any longer.
This is how I picture Mary Warren's fake bird-spirit. She's kind of a chicken.
The Crucible Act 3 Quotes
Here's a list of the key quotes that are most relevant to the thematic developments that unfold in Act 3. I'll briefly explain the significance of each in context. For a more expansive take, check out our full list of key quotes from all four acts.
“But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.”
Danforth, pg. 87
Here, Danforth affirms the black and white nature of the court’s viewpoint. Anyone who isn’t fully supportive of the court's actions is considered suspicious. The judges can’t afford to have any ambiguity or doubt infecting their decisions because their authority will suffer overall. To maintain control, they seek to create an illusion of precision in the sentencing process. It’s an illusion created as much for themselves as for the rest of Salem. They want to feel secure in the knowledge that they’re doing the right thing, and they can only do that by completely crushing all of their uncertainties.
“In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims - and they do testify, the children certainly do testify. As for the witches, none will deny that we are most eager for all their confessions. Therefore, what is left for a lawyer to bring out?”
Danforth, pg. 93
This quote shows Danforth’s rationale for the way these trials have been conducted. It gives us insight into the twisted logic that court officials have adopted in the face of hysteria. Since the crime is invisible, there are no unbiased witnesses available; the only people who can testify to what really happened are the “witch” and her victim. This means every case is inevitably a he-said-she-said situation where the accused person is immediately mistrusted and coerced into confessing without any chance to defend herself. The terror surrounding witchcraft and the Devil is so great that officials ignore the fact that the accusers might have reasons to lie about their experiences.
“I heard the other girls screaming and you, your honor, you seemed to believe them, and I - It were only sport in the beginning, sir, but then the whole world cried spirits, spirits, and I - I promise you, Mr. Danforth, I only thought I saw them but I did not.”
Mary Warren, pg. 100
Mary Warren attempts to explain her actions earlier in the play with limited success. She is faced with skepticism from the judges after such a drastic change in her testimony. There’s no consideration of the psychological elements at play in all of the girls’ testimony and how peer pressure and the approval of powerful adults might encourage their behavior. Mary tries to describe getting swept up in the experience of being in the courtroom. All of her friends were screaming about witches, Danforth believed them, and then the town believed them as well. It’s easy to see how a person like Mary, who is portrayed as an impressionable follower, would mirror the actions and beliefs of others to fit in and feel valued.
“A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud - God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!”
Proctor, pg. 111
John Proctor is at his wit’s end by the time this act is over because he’s so frustrated with the way the court officials have chosen to shut their eyes to the lies being told right in front of them. This has become a matter of pride for them. They don’t have any real desire for justice; they just want to be proven right. John describes a vision of Hell in which the Devil’s face is merely a reflection of his own face and the faces of all the others who have allowed this tragedy to happen. He delayed disclosing his knowledge of Abigail’s lies to the court, and the officials continued to trust the accusers. They have all actively chosen to encourage ignorance and paranoia out of self-interest rather than inject critical thinking and logic into the proceedings.
There's no turning back now.
The Crucible Act 3 Thematic Analysis
In this section, I'll provide a brief analysis of each of the major themes that show up in act 3 of The Crucible. I'm working on a full thematic analysis that should be coming out soon, so stay tuned!
When Hathorne questions Martha Corey, she says she can’t be a witch because "I know not what a witch is" (pg. 77). Hathorne counters by saying that if she doesn’t know what a witch is, she can’t know for sure that she isn’t one. While the officials purport to be on a mission to discover the truth, they’re really just weaving a narrative out of lies that fit their biases while ignoring everything the accused person says.
There is also an instance of tragic irony at the end of this act when Elizabeth is brought in for questioning after John confesses to his affair with Abigail. Not knowing that he has already confessed, she lies to protect him. She portrays herself as an irrationally jealous wife, "I came to think he fancied her. And so one night I lost my wits, I think, and put her out on the highroad" (pg. 105). The one time when the perpetually honest Elizabeth chose to lie also happened to be the time when it was most critical for her to tell the truth. Both she and John take actions to protect each other in different ways, but they end up worsening the situation because their priorities are misaligned.
The hysteria on display in The Crucible reaches its peak during Act 3. Throughout, there are examples of the court officials ignoring logic and evidence in favor of ignorance and paranoia. It becomes clear that the court has chosen to believe the accusers, and any evidence presented indicating that they are frauds is discounted. When the petition testifying to the good character of the accused women is presented, the reaction from Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris is to arrest the people who signed it rather than consider that this might indicate the women's innocence. Danforth is convinced that “there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!” (pg. 91), and anyone who doubts the decisions of the court is potentially involved. The power of mass hysteria is further revealed when Mary can't pretend to faint outside of the emotionally charged courtroom environment. She believed she had seen spirits before because she was caught up in the delusions of those around her.
Abigail also distracts the judges from any rational investigation in this act by playing into the mass hysteria. Danforth, who has the most authority, is also the most sold on her act, and it only takes a few screams to persuade him that he’s in the presence of witchcraft. This leads to Mary’s hysterical accusation of Proctor after she realizes she will be consumed by the hysteria monster if she doesn’t contribute to it.
John Proctor sabotages his reputation because he realizes it’s the only way he can reliably discredit Abigail. This is not a decision that is made lightly in a town where reputation is so important. John accepts that he has officially “rung the doom of [his] good name” (pg. 103). Elizabeth, however, doesn’t realize that he cares enough about her to sabotage his reputation to save her life. She acts under the assumption that his reputation is still of paramount importance and does not reveal the affair.
Concern for reputation is also expressed in this act by Danforth and Hale, who both reference the decisions they have already made condemning people to death or imprisonment. Danforth doesn’t want to accept Mary’s testimony because if it is true, it would mean that he made a lot of mistakes, which could destroy his credibility. Hale is more willing to consider that he made a mistake ("I beg you, stop now before another is condemned!" (pg. 105), but he’s very concerned with amending his decisions to align with the truth. He doesn't want his name to end up on the ignorant side of history.
Power and Authority
Desires to preserve power and authority play a prominent role in the actions of characters in this act, particularly the judges. Danforth and Hathorne refuse to hear Giles Corey’s evidence because he doesn’t present it through the proper channels. Disruptions to the court are treated with great suspicion. John Proctor is immediately asked whether he intends to overthrow the court when he attempts to present contradictory testimony. The people in positions of power have no ability to see things from another perspective because their focus is so concentrated on maintaining their authority. As evidence is presented, it becomes clear that the court is more concerned with preserving an air of infallibility than making just decisions.
John Proctor admonishes Mary Warren to tell the truth about the fraudulent nature of the witchcraft accusations, citing examples from scripture to encourage her to do the right thing. At the same time, he has not yet come forward with the truth about his affair, which would give Mary’s charges against Abigail more credibility. Although he eventually does so, it’s interesting to think about how the course of events may have differed if he hadn’t taken so long to reveal the truth to the court.
It’s clear that in Salem, sweeping things under the rug or disguising them behind facades of propriety is a way of life. When the truth is finally revealed, it is alien to the judges. How is Mary capable of pretending to faint in the courtroom but not now? How could Abigail Williams, Innocent Teen Victim, have an affair with John Proctor, Forthright Farmer and Family Man? And how could she be devious enough to pull off such dramatic false accusations? These sorts of layers in people’s psychology and behavior are confusing because they typically remain concealed.
No one who's in a position to reverse the course of events figures out the truth of what's lurking under the metaphorical floorboards in Salem until it's too late.
The Crucible Act 3 Recap
Now for a quick review of what happened in Act 3. Cue bullet points!
- Martha Corey is questioned by Danforth.
- Giles Corey objects to this and argues with the judges, insisting that the accusations against her are phony.
- Mary and John arrive, and Mary reveals that she didn't actually see any spirits.
- John presents a petition as evidence of the good character of Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey, but it backfires; Danforth has warrants drawn up for the signees.
- Giles informs Danforth that Thomas Putnam told Ruth Putnam to accuse George Jacobs so Putnam could get Jacobs' land.
- However, Giles won't reveal who told him this, so he's arrested for contempt of court.
- Danforth reviews Mary's deposition where she testifies that the girls were faking.
- The girls are brought in and questioned, and Abigail denies the accusations.
- Mary is unable to pretend to faint on command, which makes Danforth, Parris, and Hathorne doubt her revised testimony.
- John admits to his affair with Abigail in desperation, but the usually truthful Elizabeth does not corroborate his claims because she doesn't know he's already confessed.
- Abigail and the other girls act like they are being bewitched by Mary, who accuses John of working for the Devil out of fear that she will be condemned by the court.
- John Proctor and Giles Corey are arrested, and Hale quits the court.
Act 3 makes it clear that the court officials are not willing to see reason. However, there's still a question of who will ultimately face the death penalty over these false accusations and what the fallout of the trials will be in Salem. All this and more will be revealed in Act 4, the final chapter.
Check out our Act 4 summary or, if you want a recap of the entire story, our summary of the full plot of The Crucible, complete with character descriptions and a list of themes.
The events in Act 3 incorporate some key character developments. For more insight, read these in-depth character analyses of Abigail Williams, Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor, Mary Warren, and Giles Corey.
We've also written short articles on confusing questions that often come up when students study The Crucible. These articles should help you understand why Elizabeth asks John to go to Salem in Act 2 and why Reverend Hale ultimately returns to Salem in Act 4.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.