In a cell in the Salem prison a few months later, Sarah Good and Tituba think that the devil has come to take them to Barbados. But it's just Marshal Herrick, come to move them to a different cell.
The hysteria has so overwhelmed Tituba and Sarah Good that they now believe their false confessions were real.
Hathorne and Danforth enter. They wonder where Parris is and are troubled to learn from Herrick that he's with Hale, visiting those condemned to hang that morning, including Proctor and Rebecca Nurse.
The judges' nervousness suggests the trials have made them uneasy: they sense their own blindness even if they can't admit it.
Parris enters. To Danforth and Hathorne's questions about Hale, he answers that Hale has returned to try to convince those convicted of witchcraft to confess their crimes and save their lives. Danforth is surprised and pleased.
Danforth thinks Hale has seen the error of his ways. He remains blind, unaware of Hale's actual intentions.
After a moment's indecision, Parris reveals that Abigail robbed him of thirty-one pounds and then ran off with Mercy Lewis. He thinks they left after hearing about a revolt against the witch trials in the nearby town of Andover. Parris fears a similar riot in Salem now that people with social influence, like Rebecca and Proctor, are scheduled to hang. He begs to postpone the hangings.
Finally, here is some proof that Abigail is a liar. In the courts eyes, this proof should bring up the possibility that all of Abigail's accusations were lies. In addition, the events in Andover show that the hysteria is waning. Could the injustice be overturned?
Danforth refuses to postpone the executions. He does say, however, that he's willing to work until dawn to convince one of the convicted to confess, since a confession would make those who don't confess look like liars.
No! Because Danforth believes his decisions reflect God's will, he can't change them. His rigid ideology makes him vulnerable to hysteria.
Danforth's position doesn't satisfy Parris. He's received threats regarding his part in the trials and fears for his safety.
As usual, Parris cares most about his own well-being.
Hale enters, demanding pardons for the convicted. Danforth says 12 others have already been hanged for the same charge; pardons for the remaining convicts would therefore be unjust and crack the voice of God's law with "whimpering." Hale says a week's postponement would seem like mercy to the public, not weakness. Danforth doesn't listen.
Danforth won't postpone the hangings because he won't allow himself, his government, or his God, to look weak. Ideology and reputation are more important to him than standing up to hysteria or saving innocent lives.
Danforth does wonder, however, if they might be able to get Proctor to confess, since Elizabeth is now well along in her pregnancy. As Marshal Herrick goes to get Elizabeth, Danforth asks Hale why he returned to Salem. Hale replies bitterly that he came to convince Christians to lie and confess to crimes they did not commit in order to save their lives.
Having lost faith in the church after seeing innocents condemned, Hale advises people to lie to save their own lives. In other words, he's advising people to sacrifice their integrity, by lying, to save themselves.
Elizabeth enters. Hale tells her he will consider himself Proctor's murderer if Proctor is hanged. Hale begs Elizabeth to convince Proctor to lie, to give a false confession, in order to save himself. He says that life is God's great gift, and no belief or religion should be followed if it harms life. Danforth and Hathorne disagree. Hale shouts that the confession must be a lie since Proctor is innocent. Elizabeth agrees to speak with Proctor.
Hale knows his advice goes against his religion. He's become so embittered by the blindness of Salem's religious authorities that his only choice is to defy them.
Proctor is brought from his cell and the others leave so he can spend some time alone with Elizabeth. She tells him that hundreds have confessed, though Rebecca has not. She also adds that Corey refused to speak at all, in accordance with a legal loophole that ensured his farm would pass to his sons if he remained silent. Corey died while being pressed—stone after stone was laid on him to make him speak, but all he said was, "More weight."
Lying is a sin. So Rebecca and Corey protect their integrity and their souls by refusing to confess. In its ideological blindness and insistence on social control, the government unknowingly forced people to act against their religion and damn their souls to save their lives.
Proctor asks what Elizabeth would think if he confessed. Unlike Rebecca and Martha Corey, who refuse to lie and damn themselves, Proctor considers himself a liar already because of his affair with Abigail. So what's one more lie to save his life? Elizabeth says she can't judge him. She says that regardless of what he does, he'll be a good man. She adds that she has sins of her own: her coldness drove him to adultery. She tells Proctor to forgive himself.
Elizabeth tells Proctor that only he can decide whether to sacrifice his integrity to repair his reputation and save his life. At the same time, she shows her own integrity by apologizing for driving Proctor away from her.
Proctor decides to confess, though he knows he shouldn't. When they learn the news, Danforth, Hathorne, and Parris are overjoyed. They ask Ezekiel Cheever to write down Proctor's confession. Proctor asks why it must be written down. To post on the church door, they tell him. They ask Proctor if he's seen the devil. He says yes.
Proctor sacrifices his integrity to save his life. The judges' joyful reaction shows they know he's innocent, but must condemn him to maintain their own reputations and make their blindness seem like wisdom.
They bring in Rebecca in hopes that Proctor's confession will sway her. She says a confession would be a lie, and prays for Proctor's soul.
Unlike Proctor, Rebecca chooses integrity over life.
Danforth asks Proctor if he's seen Rebecca with the devil. Proctor says he hasn't. Danforth then asks if he's seen anyone with the devil. Proctor again says no. Hale and Parris convince Danforth to accept Proctor's confession anyway. Under pressure from Danforth, Proctor signs the confession. Yet when Danforth reaches for the confession, Proctor grabs it and refuses to hand it over.
Proctor sacrifices his integrity to save himself, but he can't sacrifice the good name of others to save his own life. He has too much integrity to harm others for his own benefit.
Danforth says the village must have proof. Proctor shouts that God has the proof, and that's enough. When Danforth persists, Proctor shouts that he cannot bear to sign his name to lies, or through his confession to soil the good names of his friends who refused to lie in order to save themselves.
If God knows all, why should he need a signed confession? Danforth doesn't care about Proctor's soul: he just wants to protect his and his government's reputation.
Danforth says if the confession is a lie, then it is no confession at all. Proctor rips the confession to pieces. Danforth orders Herrick to take Proctor to the gallows. Parris and Hale beg Elizabeth to speak to Proctor. But she says Proctor has his goodness back now, and refuses.
Proctor's choice (integrity) affirms his goodness and reveals the selfish corruption of the ideological forces that condemn him. His death ends Salem's hysteria.