Eight days later, John Proctor returns home late from planting the fields. He and Elizabeth talk about the coming crop as he eats the dinner she prepared for him. A sense of separation exists between them. Proctor asks his wife what's wrong. She says he was out so late she thought he might have gone into Salem. Proctor ignores the implications of her comment.
Elizabeth thought Proctor went into town to see Abigail, but they've yet to discuss their feelings about his affair. This bottling up of resentment to preserve order mirrors what goes on every day in Salem's Puritan society.
Elizabeth continues: Mary Warren is in town, as an official of the court. Proctor is astonished: what court? Elizabeth explains: judges have been sent up from Boston to try people for witchcraft. Fourteen people are in jail, and will be hanged unless they confess. Proctor can't believe it, but Elizabeth assures him it's true: Abigail leads the other girls in identifying witches. She urges a resistant Proctor to go to the court and tell the judges what Abigail told him: that it was mischief, not witchcraft.
It's now clear that hysteria is gripping the town, extending even to the authorities. Proctor can no longer dismiss or ignore it. Yet Proctor still resists going to the court because he fears for his reputation.
As Elizabeth continues to push Proctor to go to the judges, it comes out that he was alone with Abigail at Parris's house. Proctor had left that part out when he told Elizabeth the story earlier. Elizabeth is hurt and angry, while Proctor quickly becomes furious that his wife is still suspicious of him, even after he confessed his affair and ended it. He tells her to stop judging him. Elizabeth responds that she's not judging him: he's judging himself.
Proctor's anger at himself over his affair with Abigail makes him mix up his integrity and his reputation. His sense of lost integrity, his anger at himself, makes him fear what others think about his reputation.
Mary Warren enters. Proctor, already angry, threatens to whip her for disobeying his order not to go to town that day. Mary does not resist. Instead she goes to Elizabeth and gives her a poppet (a doll) that she sewed for her during the court proceedings. Elizabeth, though puzzled by this odd gift, accepts it. As Mary heads up to bed, Proctor asks if it's true that fourteen people are in jail. Mary says that now thirty-nine are in jail: Goody Osburn has been convicted and will hang, while Sarah Good confessed to witchcraft and thereby saved herself.
Hysteria feeds itself and grows: now people have confessed to non-existent witchcraft! But Sarah Good's confession was the only way for her to save herself. (By the way: the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is designed to eliminate this sort of forced confession.)
Proctor says that Sarah Good is just a "jabberer." But Mary says that Good "sent her spirit out" during the trial to try and choke the girls accusing her. Mary adds that she now realizes Good had tried to kill her in the past: whenever Good came begging and Mary turned her away, Good would mumble, and one time Mary felt extremely sick just afterwards. Mary adds that Judge Hathorne asked Sarah Good what she mumbled, and Sarah Good said she was reciting the Ten Commandments. But when Hathorne asked her to recite them, she didn't know even one.
Hysteria isn't just a bunch of people lying: it's a blinding force that changes people's conceptions of reality. Mary Warren, who knows there was no witchcraft because she was in the woods that night, now believes witchcraft exists.
Proctor considers this weak evidence and tells Mary not to go to town again. Mary refuses. When Proctor moves to whip her, Mary shouts that she saved Elizabeth's life: Elizabeth was accused of witchcraft, but Mary said she'd seen no sign of it in her time living with the Proctors, so the court dismissed the charge. Elizabeth asks who accused her, but Mary refuses to say and goes to bed.
Just as witchcraft gives Mrs. Putnam an object to blame for her bad luck, it gives the formerly powerless Mary a new sense of strength. This feeling of strength, in turn, becomes a subconscious motive for her to believe that the witchcraft is real. .
Proctor and Elizabeth know Abigail is behind the accusation. Elizabeth says Abigail wants to replace her as Proctor's wife. She tells him to go speak to her, to make it clear to Abigail that she'll never take Elizabeth's place. Proctor agrees to go, but is still angry that his wife doesn't trust him.
Though Proctor can sense the mounting hysteria and knows that it's costing innocent people their lives, he's still most concerned about protecting his reputation.
Suddenly Hale appears at the door, startling both Elizabeth and Proctor. Hale says that without the court's authority he's visiting each of the families "somewhat mentioned" in the trial to try to get a sense of them. He's just come from Rebecca Nurse's house. Proctor and Elizabeth are shocked. Rebecca Nurse is well known as the most religious person in Salem. Hale says the devil can tempt anyone, but nonetheless says he's certain Rebecca won't be charged.
The first sign of Hale's integrity: he's uncomfortable with the trials. Unlike the court, which demands confessions on pain of death and then uses those false confessions to condemn innocent victims, Hale searches for actual evidence.
Hale asks some questions about the "Christian character" of the house. He asks why the Proctors don't often go to church, and why only two of their three sons are baptized. Proctor explains he doesn't see the "light of God" in Parris. Hale says that such a thing is not for Proctor to decide: Parris is an ordained minister, therefore he has the "light of God." Hale also asks Proctor to recite the ten commandments. Proctor gets nine of ten, forgetting the one against adultery. The missed commandment troubles Hale, and he gets up to go.
Puritan society denies the individual any right to make his or her own judgments. The Puritans think they have God on their side, and therefore cannot make mistakes. If a man has been ordained as a minister, then he must be good and wise. And if someone disagrees with that assessment, then he or she must be against God.
Just as Hale is about to leave, Elizabeth persuades Proctor to speak up about Abigail. The news shakes Hale, who points out that many have confessed. Proctor counters by pointing out that they've confessed to save themselves from certain death. This realization has troubled Hale too, but he's avoided facing it until now.
Proctor describes the vicious cycle created by ideological power. That Hale perceived this problem and overlooked it shows the Puritan authorities' inability to question themselves.
Giles Corey and Francis Nurse appear in Proctor's doorway with the news that their wives, Martha and Rebecca, have been charged and imprisoned. Rebecca was charged with the murder of Mrs. Putnam's babies.
The hysteria provide a forum for expression of suppressed grievances. The Putnams dislike the Nurses, so Rebecca Nurse is charged.
Though troubled, Hale defends the court and says it will certainly send Rebecca home. Yet Hale has no answer when Corey says his wife was charged by a man named Walcott as retribution for once buying a pig from her that soon died.
Hale thinks the Puritan court is blessed by God, and therefore believes that it will make the right decision. But his doubts have begun to show.
Ezekiel Cheever and Marshal Herrick appear at the Proctors' door with an arrest warrant for Elizabeth. Cheever also asks Elizabeth to hand over any poppets (dolls) in the house. Elizabeth says she's had no poppets since she was a little girl, but Cheever notices the poppet Mary gave her. As Elizabeth goes to get Mary to explain, Cheever discovers a needle stuck in the poppet's belly—just that night Abigail fell screaming to the floor, and a needle was discovered stuck into her skin. Abigail said Elizabeth's spirit pushed in the needle. Mary tells Cheever she sewed the poppet and stored the needle in it. Cheever is unconvinced.
The court, like Hale, believes itself to be blessed by God and that its judgments must therefore, by definition, be correct and just! The court therefore has no need for evidence. Mary's story completely discredits Abigail's claim that Elizabeth used witchcraft against her, but Cheever, as an officer of the court, remains convinced of Elizabeth's guilt.
Proctor angrily rips up the warrant and orders Cheever and Herrick to leave his house, but Herrick and Cheever have nine men outside and take Elizabeth.
Proctor takes a stand against the oppressive society that issued the warrant.
Hale assures Proctor that the court will recognize Elizabeth's innocence, and promises that he will testify in her favor. He insists, however, that recent events in Salem must have some basis in fact. Hale leaves. Corey and Nurse soon follow.
Hale's circular logic: the court's arrival in Salem is God's will and therefore must be justified. He can't fathom that the court's been deceived or misled.
When they're alone, Proctor tells Mary she will testify against Abigail in court tomorrow. Mary says that Abigail will charge Proctor with lechery (excessive and indulgent sexual behavior) if he tries to reveal her lies. Proctor says only that then he and Abigail will "slide into their pit together." Terrified, Mary sobs that she can't testify.
Proctor stops trying to protect his reputation. He decides to tell the court the truth. But Mary's terror, indicates that her fear may be stronger than her integrity, foreshadowing disaster.