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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.410-426)
The one moment in Elizabeth’s life when telling the truth would mean salvation, she lies to save her husband’s reputation – an act of forgiveness and compassion. Does the fact that she tells a lie amount to a compromise of her deepest principles, or is it an act of courage?
PROCTOR, with great force of will, but not quite looking at her: I have been thinking I would confess to them, Elizabeth. She shows nothing. What say you? If I give them that?
ELIZABETH: I cannot judge you, John. Pause.
PROCTOR, simply-a pure question: What would you have me do?
ELIZABETH: As you will, I would have it. Slight pause: I want you living, John. That's sure.
PROCTOR, pauses, then with a flailing of hope: Giles' wife? Have she confessed?
ELIZABETH: She will not. Pause.
PROCTOR: It is a pretense, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH: What is?
PROCTOR: I cannot mount the gibbet like a saint. It is a fraud. I am not that man. She is silent. My honesty is broke, Elizabeth; I am no good man. Nothing's spoiled by giving them this lie that were not rotten long before.
ELIZABETH: And yet you've not confessed till now. That speak, goodness in you.
PROCTOR: Spite only keeps me silent. It is hard to give a lie to dogs. (IV.188-200)
Proctor confesses that it is only spite that has kept him from lying and saving his own life. But now, facing death, he is weak and thinks the deception might not be so bad. He believes he is not a good man, and though his confession would be for witchcraft, he feels it might also be true. If he goes to death, falsely condemned, he will be seen as a martyr, and he believes this, too, is false.
DANFORTH: Mr. Proctor. When the Devil came to you did you see Rebecca Nurse in his company? Proctor is silent. Come, man, take courage – did you ever see her with the Devil?
PROCTOR, almost inaudibly: No.
Danforth, now sensing trouble, glances at John and goes to the table, and picks up a sheet – the list of condemned.
DANFORTH: Did you ever see her sister, Mary Easty, with the Devil?
PROCTOR: No, I did not.
DANFORTH, his eyes narrow on Proctor: Did you ever see Martha Corey with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH, realizing, slowly putting the sheet down: Did you ever see anyone with the Devil?
PROCTOR: I did not.
DANFORTH: Proctor, you mistake me. I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie. You have most certainly seen some person with the Devil. Proctor is silent. Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw this woman with the Devil.
PROCTOR: Then it is proved. Why must I say it?
DANFORTH: Why "must" you say it! Why, you should rejoice to say it if your soul is truly purged of any love for Hell!
PROCTOR: They think to go like saints. I like not to spoil their names.
DANFORTH, inquiring, incredulous: Mr. Proctor, do you think they go like saints?
PROCTOR, evading: This woman never thought she done the Devil’s work.
DANFORTH: Look you, sir. I think you mistake your duty here. It matters nothing what she thought….
PROCTOR: I speak my own sins; I cannot judge another. Crying out, with hatred: I have no tongue for it.
Proctor is willing to lie about himself to save his life – but he is not willing to lie about his friends, publicly or otherwise, and so he goes to his death. Just so we know that Proctor’s decision is really a principled one, Miller has Danforth point out that people like Rebecca Nurse are doomed no matter what, having been accused by other people. So, in this sense, it doesn’t matter if Proctor adds one more voice to the chorus – her death wouldn’t be directly on his hands. But it would be such an outrageous and malicious lie that he simply doesn’t have the “tongue” do say it.