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DANFORTH: These will be sufficient. Sit you down, children. Silently they sit. Your friend, Mary Warren, has given us a deposition. In which she swears that she never saw familiar spirits, apparitions, nor any manifest of the Devil. She claims as well that none of you have not seen these things either. Slight pause. Now, children, this is a court of law. The law, based upon the Bible, and the Bible, writ by Almighty God, forbid the practice of witchcraft, and describe death as the penalty thereof. But likewise, children, the law and Bible damn all bearers of false witness. Slight pause. Now then. It does not escape me that this deposition may be devised to blind us; it may well be that Mary Warren has been conquered by Satan, who sends her here to distract our sacred purpose. If so, her neck will break for it. But if she speak true, I bid you now drop your guile and confess your pretense, for a quick confession will go easier with you. Pause. Abigail Williams, rise. Abigail slowly rises. Is there any truth in this?
ABIGAIL: No, sir.
DANFORTH, thinks, glances at Mary, then back to Abigail: Children, a very augur bit will now be turned into your souls until your honesty is proved. Will either of you change your positions now, or do you force me to hard questioning?
ABIGAIL: I have naught to change, sir. She lies. (III.266-269)
In the matters of whether or not the supernatural world exists, and whether or not witchcraft is occurring, the court depends on the words of these children. The play suggests that children are weaker and have a more difficult time sorting good from bad. Moral sense may be innate, but it must also be cultivated by years of experience.
DANFORTH: Woman, look at me! Elizabeth does. Were she slovenly? Lazy? What disturbance did she cause?
ELIZABETH: Your Honor, I-in that time I were sick. And I- My husband is a good and righteous man. He is never drunk as some are, nor wastin’ his time at the shovelboard, but always at his work. But in my sickness-you see, sir, I were a long time sick after my last baby, and I thought I saw my husband somewhat turning from me. And this girl- She turns to Abigail.
DANFORTH: Look at me.
ELIZABETH: Aye, sir. Abigail Williams- She breaks off.
DANFORTH: What of Abigail Williams?
ELIZABETH: I came to think he fancied her. And so one night I lost my wits, I think, and put her out on the highroad.
DANFORTH: Your husband-did he indeed turn from you?
ELIZABETH, in agony: My husband-is a goodly man, sir.
DANFORTH: Then he did not turn from you.
ELIZABETH, starting to glance at Proctor: He-
DANFORTH, reaches out and holds her face, then: Look at me! To your own knowledge, has John Proctor ever committed the crime of lechery? In a crisis of indecision she cannot speak. Answer my question! Is your husband a lecher!
ELIZABETH, faintly: No, sir.
DANFORTH: Remove her!
PROCTOR: Elizabeth, tell the truth!
DANFORTH: She has spoken. Remove her!
PROCTOR, crying out: Elizabeth, I have confessed it!
ELIZABETH: Oh, God! The door closes behind her.
PROCTOR: She only thought to save my name! (III.409-426)
The one moment in Elizabeth’s life when telling the truth would save her life, she lies to save her husband’s reputation. Is this an act of forgiveness, or is she just covering up for him because she feels it is her duty? Throughout the play, Elizabeth has been slightly more interested in preserving appearances than Proctor.
DANFORTH: I judge nothing. Pause. He keeps watching Proctor, who tries to meet his gaze. I tell you straight, Mister-I have seen marvels in this court. I have seen people choked before my eyes by spirits; I have seen them stuck by pins and slashed by daggers. I have until this moment not the slightest reason to suspect that the children may be deceiving me. Do you understand my meaning?
PROCTOR: Excellency, does it not strike upon you that so many of these women have lived so long with such upright reputation, and-
PARRIS: Do you read the Gospel, Mr. Proctor?
PROCTOR: I read the Gospel.
PARRIS: I think not, or you should surely know that Cain were an upright man, and yet he did kill Abel.
PROCTOR: Aye, God tells us that. To Danforth: But who tells us Rebecca Nurse murdered seven babies by sending out her spirit on them? It is the children only, and this one will swear she lied to you. (III.127-132)
Proctor appeals to the women’s long-standing excellent reputations to demonstrate that there might be something fishy about the accusations against them. Though Danforth and Parris try to suggest that the Devil is disingenuous and can fool even the most righteous man, Proctor diffuses their arguments by pointing to the ones who made the accusations and to their possibly negative reputations.