Betty Parris has fallen into a strange coma. Around her hover Reverend Parris, her father and the minister of the Massachusetts town of Salem, his 17-year-old niece Abigail Williams, and his slave Tituba. When Tituba asks if Betty will be all right, Parris yells at her to get out of the room.
Parris's treatment of Tituba reveals his angry and selfish character. The incident also shows Tituba's powerlessness: she's entirely at her master's command.
Susanna Walcott arrives with news that the town doctor can't figure out what's the matter and suggests Parris look for spiritual causes. Parris says it can't possibly be spiritual causes, though just to make sure he's asked Reverend Hale from the nearby town of Beverly to come investigate. As Susanna leaves, both Abigail and Parris caution her to keep quiet about what she's seen.
Parris and Abigail are both trying to protect their reputations: Parris by stopping Susanna from talking about what she's seen in his house, and Abigail by warning Susanna not to mention what happened in the forest.
Abigail tells Parris about rumors that witchcraft caused Betty's faint: a crowd has already gathered downstairs in Parris's house. Abigail suggests Parris publicly deny the rumors of witchcraft.
The gathered crowd suggests both a uniform social order asserting itself and the beginnings of hysteria.
Parris angrily asks if he should say he discovered his daughter and niece dancing "like heathen[s]" in the forest. Abigail admits they danced, but says that's all they did. Parris says that if the girls were conjuring spirits, he needs to know because his "enemies" will surely find out and ruin him. He says there's a group in the town that wants to drive him from his job as minister.
Witchcraft isn't just a sin, it's a threat against Parris's job and reputation. He must control the rumors to save himself. The best way to control them is to deny them, or so he thinks at this point.
Abigail insists there was no witchcraft, but Parris says he saw Tituba chanting over a cauldron. Abigail says that Tituba was just singing songs from Barbados, her homeland. Then Parris says he thinks he saw a naked body running away in the forest. Abigail swears no one was naked.
Abigail holds back information, trying to make herself look as good and innocent as possible, although she's been caught doing something forbidden.
Parris asks Abigail why Elizabeth Proctor dismissed her from her job as an assistant in the Proctor household six months earlier. He's heard rumors Elizabeth now rarely comes to church because she refuses to sit near Abigail. Parris also expresses concern that since Elizabeth dismissed Abigail, no other family has hired her. Abigail says Elizabeth dismissed her because she refused to act like a slave, and that other women haven't hired her for the same reason. She says her reputation in the town is spotless, and calls Elizabeth a cold woman and a gossiping liar.
The charge of witchcraft, a religious sin, is here linked to other vague social transgressions. Parris and Abigail's strong concern about their reputations reveals how Salem's Puritan society required people to act according to its rigid social and religious rules. A ruined reputation could mean a ruined life in Salem.
Mrs. Ann Putnam barges into the room. Parris yells that no one should enter, but when he sees who it is, he invites her in.
The Putnams have influence in Salem. Parris craves their support.
Mrs. Putnam tells Parris this event is a mark of hell on his house. She then asks how high Betty flew. Parris denies that anyone flew, but Mrs. Putnam says witnesses saw her fly.
Rumors of witchcraft become belief in witchcraft: hysteria works by building upon irrational fear.
Thomas Putnam enters and says it's a blessing that the "thing is out now." Putnam remarks that Betty's eyes are closed, while his daughter Ruth's eyes are open. Parris is shocked that other girls are also sick. Mrs. Putnam says they're not sick: they're being attacked by the devil. Putnam asks if it's true that Parris sent for Reverend Hale from Beverly. Parris says yes, but just as a precaution. Putnam is certain there's been witchcraft, but Parris begs him not to say it. If witchcraft is charged Parris fears he may lose his ministry.
If there's no witchcraft, why do the girls faint? The play suggests that the comas result in part from the girls' subconscious understanding that illness could help protect them from punishment for breaking Salem's strict social rules.
At her husband's insistence, Mrs. Putnam, who's had seven babies die in infancy, admits she sent Ruth to Tituba, who can conjure the dead, to find out why the babies died. Now that Ruth is afflicted too, Mrs. Putnam is certain that someone murdered her babies. Putnam says a witch must be hiding in Salem.
Mrs. Putnam wants to have something to blame for the deaths of her babies. She wants it to be witchcraft, though she may not realize consciously that she does.
Parris turns to Abigail, who admits Ruth and Tituba conjured spirits, but insists she wasn't involved.
Abigail continues to lie to protect her reputation.
Parris moans that he'll be run out of town. But Putnam says Parris won't be if he stands up and declares he's discovered witchcraft instead of letting others charge him with it.
Like Mrs. Putnam, Putnam wants witchcraft to exist, though it isn't yet clear why.
Mercy Lewis, the Putnam's servant, enters with word that Ruth has improved slightly. Putnam and Abigail convince Parris he should speak to the crowd gathered downstairs. Parris agrees to lead them in singing a psalm.
Parris continues to believe that the best way to protect himself is to argue against the presence of witchcraft.
When Mercy and Abigail are alone, Abigail tries desperately to wake Betty. At the same time she and Mercy try to get their stories straight: they all danced and Ruth and Tituba conjured spirits. Abigail tells Mercy that Parris saw her naked. Another girl, Mary Warren, runs in. She's terrified that the town will condemn them as witches. She says they have to confess because the penalty for witchcraft is hanging, but if they confess to just dancing, they'll only be whipped.
Abigail is established as a liar, and Mary as frightened of Abigail. It's obvious that Mary Warren, at least, believes there wasn't any real witchcraft. Note that like Parris, Abigail is at the moment putting all her effort into denying witchcraft.
Betty suddenly wakes and huddles against the wall, calling for her dead mother. Abigail tells Betty not to worry because she told Parris everything. But Betty says Abigail didn't tell that she drank blood as a charm to kill Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail smacks her across the face. She tells the other three girls that if they admit to anything more than dancing and Ruth and Tituba's conjuring, she'll kill them. Betty collapses back into her strange coma.
Now it's revealed that Abigail really did push well beyond the strict religious laws of Salem in hopes of killing Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail is more than just a liar: she's capable of murder.
John Proctor enters. He reprimands Mary, his servant, for leaving his house when he ordered her not to. Mary and Mercy Lewis leave.
Proctor is portrayed as strong-willed and moral.
When he's alone with Abigail, Proctor mentions the town's rumors of witchcraft. Abigail dismisses them, steps closer to Proctor, and says it's all nothing more than mischief. She says they were dancing and Betty just fainted. Proctor smiles, and says, "ah, you're wicked yet, aren't y'!" Abigail steps even closer and asks for a "soft word." She insists he still loves her. Proctor admits he has some feelings for her, but says the affair is over. Abigail, hurt and angry, insults Elizabeth, infuriating Proctor.
Proctor's outward morality hides immoral thoughts and actions. Yet Proctor's self-hatred regarding his affair with Abigail actually proves his morality: he hates himself for being immoral. It's now clear that Abigail wanted to kill Elizabeth Proctor to have her teenage crush to herself.
Downstairs, Parris and the crowd sing a psalm. Betty begins to wail. Parris and the Putnams run into the room. Mrs. Putnam says it's a sign of witchcraft: Betty can't bear to hear the Lord's name.
Is it just a coincidence that Betty cries out when the hymn begins? Or has she been swayed by all the talk of witchcraft?
Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey enter. Parris implores Rebecca to go to Betty. She does, and Betty quiets down. Parris and the Putnams are astonished. Rebecca says this is just an example of children being children, and adds that she hopes Parris isn't really going to claim "loose spirits" were the cause.
Rebecca Nurse speaks sensibly, but Parris and the Putnams resent her wisdom, perhaps as part of a general resentment of Rebecca's high standing in the community.
A disagreement arises about whether Parris should have called Reverend Hale to come search Salem for spirits without first holding a meeting. The dispute erupts into an argument between Proctor, Putnam, Mrs. Putnam, Rebecca Nurse, and Parris about town politics and grievances. The argument covers everything from Putnam's meddling, to Mrs. Putnam's envy that none of Rebecca Nurse's children has died, to Proctor's dislike of Parris' fiery sermons, to Parris's belief that his salary is insufficient and that there's a faction against him in the town, to boundary disputes between Putnam, the Nurses, Proctor, and Corey.
Reverend Hale enters carrying a stack of religious books about witchcraft. He seems eager to flex his authority. Proctor departs, but not before saying he's heard Hale is a sensible man and that he hopes he'll bring some sense to Salem. Hale examines Betty, but when Putnam mentions witchcraft Hale stops him. Hale says that the mark of the devil is clear. He asks them all to agree not to push the issue of witchcraft if he finds no evidence.
Though a minister, Hale sees himself as a doctor building up a diagnosis based on facts. His focus on facts makes him less ideological than other ministers, less likely to impose his own beliefs on others or to need to protect his reputation.
Putnam, Mrs. Putnam, and Parris tell Hale of the recent events. Hale and Rebecca are shocked Mrs. Putnam would send her child to commune with spirits, but Mrs. Putnam shouts that she won't allow Rebecca to judge her.
Note the resentment between the Putnams and the Nurses. Salem society had previously kept their bitterness confined to silence.
As Hale takes out a book about witchcraft and prepares to examine Betty further, Rebecca departs, clearly dismissing all this fuss as foolish. Giles interrupts. He asks Hale why his wife Martha reads books that she refuses to show him. Hale says they'll speak about it later, and gets to work.
Proctor and Rebecca, two voices of reason, leave before the investigation begins. Those who can stop hysteria from growing often don't take it seriously until too late.
Betty doesn't respond to Hale's question, so he turns to Abigail. She repeats that they were only dancing. When Parris mentions he saw them dancing around a kettle, Abigail says the kettle just held soup. Parris then says he thought he saw movement in the soup. Abigail says a frog jumped into the soup.
Abigail continues to lie to save her reputation and her life, even as the evidence mounts against her.
Troubled, Hale asks Abigail if she conjured the devil. Abigail says Tituba did. As Mrs. Putnam goes to get Tituba, Hale asks Abigail several questions: did she feel the devil's presence, did she drink from the kettle, did she sell herself to the devil? Abigail denies everything. As soon as Tituba enters, however, Abigail screams that Tituba made her do it, that Tituba made her drink blood.
Abigail switches tactics once Hale makes it clear he believes there might have been witchcraft. Abigail gives him what he wants: she says there was witchcraft, and portrays herself as its innocent victim.
Tituba responds that Abigail begged her to conjure. But Abigail says Tituba often "sends her spirit out" and makes Abigail laugh at prayer in church.
Like Abigail did before, Tituba at first denies the presence of any witchcraft.
Hale asks Tituba when she made a "compact with the devil." Tituba says she never has. Parris threatens to whip her to death unless she confesses. Putnam yells that she should be hanged. Tituba screams in terror that she didn't want to work for the devil, but he forced her. She says many witches exist in Salem. Hale and Parris ask if she's seen them. Tituba says yes. Putnam asks: was it Sarah Good, or maybe Mrs. Osburn? Tituba hesitates, but Hale tells Tituba not to fear: if she confesses whom she saw, she will be blessed.
Tituba discovers that nobody wants to hear denials, just as Abigail realized earlier. The religious authorities interpret denials as lies, so Tituba gives them what they want: a confession. The men then encourage their shared delusion by planting the names of possible witches in Tituba's mind.
Tituba identifies Sarah Good and Mrs. Osburn as other witches. Mrs. Putnam shouts that she knew it! Osburn was the midwife at the births of three of her dead babies.
Mrs. Putnam finally gets what she wants, someone to blame: Mrs. Osburn.
Suddenly Abigail stands up and shouts that she too wants to confess, to return to God. She starts chanting names of women she's seen with the devil. Betty wakes and begins to chant names too. Parris, Putnam, and Hale call for the town marshal as the girls scream out the names of witch after witch.