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HALE: I am a stranger here, as you know. And in my ignorance I find it hard to draw a clear opinion of them that come accused before the court. And so this afternoon, and now tonight, I go from house to house-I come now from Rebecca Nurse's house and-
ELIZABETH, shocked: Rebecca's charged!
HALE: God forbid such a one be charged. She is, however-mentioned somewhat.
ELIZABETH, with an attempt at a laugh: You will never believe, I hope, that Rebecca trafficked with the Devil.
HALE: Woman, it is possible.
PROCTOR, taken aback: Surely you cannot think so.
HALE: This is a strange time, Mister. No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village. There is too much evidence now to deny it. You will agree, sir?
PROCTOR, evading: I- have no knowledge in that line. But it's hard to think so pious a woman be secretly a Devil's bitch after seventy year of such good prayer.
HALE: Aye. But the Devil is a wily one, you cannot deny it. (II.203-211)
The idea that Rebecca Nurse could be a witch is shocking to Elizabeth and Proctor because their whole religion is based on the idea that a lifetime a prayer and good service should protect one from the Devil. To this concern all that Rev. Hale can offer up is the lame explanation that “this is a strange time.” In fact, it’s not strange at all: the community has simply abandoned its principles.
PROCTOR, breathless and in agony: It [Abigail] is a whore!
DANFORTH, dumfounded: You charge-?
ABIGAIL: Mr. Danforth, he is lying!
PROCTOR: Mark her! Now she'll suck a scream to stab me with but-
DANFORTH: You will prove this! This will not pass!
PROCTOR, trembling, his life collapsing about him: I have known her, sir. I have known her.
DANFORTH: You-you are a lecher?
FRANCIS, horrified: John, you cannot say such a –
PROCTOR: Oh, Francis, I wish you had some evil in you that you might know me. To Danforth: A man will not cast away his good name. You surely know that.
DANFORTH, dumfounded: In-in what time? In what place?
PROCTOR, his voice about to break, and his shame great: In the proper place-where my beasts are bedded. On the last night of my joy, some eight months past. She used to serve me in my house, sir. He has to clamp his jaw to keep from weeping. A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now. I beg you, sir, I beg you-see her what she is. My wife, my dear good wife, took this girl soon after, sir, and put her out on the highroad. And being what she is, a lump of vanity, sir- He is being overcome. Excellency, forgive me, forgive me. Angrily against himself, he turns away from the Governor for a moment. Then, as though to cry out is his only means of speech left: She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore's vengeance, and you must see it now. III.374-384
Proctor sacrifices his reputation in order to save his wife and stop the court proceedings. Then again, there are really two ways of having a reputation. The first is to follow the rules, which is what Proctor gives up by admitting he committed adultery. The second is to have integrity. Proctor preserves his integrity by being honest.
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.415-426)
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 love and courage, or has she gotten her priorities mixed up? Proctor bears some of the blame for her telling a lie. He has failed to appreciate or praise her honesty in the past, so it’s easy to understand why she would cave at this moment, dealing with a personal subject in front of so many people.