Act I of The Crucible opens with Salem’s minister, the Reverend Parris, watching over his sick daughter Betty, wondering what is wrong with her. We soon learn that the entire town is buzzing with rumors that Betty is sick because of witchcraft. Rev. Parris had seen both Betty and his niece Abigail dancing in the forest with his slave, Tituba, the night before. That evening in the forest, he also saw a cauldron and a frog leaping into it. When first questioned, Abigail denies that she or Betty have been involved in witchcraft, but she admits that they were dancing in the forest with Tituba. Abigail lives in the Parris household because her own parents are dead. She used to live at the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor, but they asked her to leave for some mysterious reason.
When another couple, Thomas and Ann Putnam, arrives at the Parris household, they admit that they actually consulted Tituba, hoping she could conjure up the spirits of their seven dead children. They wanted to find out why all seven died so soon after childbirth. To Reverend Parris’s horror, the Putnams emphatically state that his slave Tituba consorts with the dead. The Putnams’s only living daughter, Ruth, is now struck by a similar ailment as Betty Parris, and this obviously has the Putnams up in arms.
When the minister and the Putnams are out of the room, Abigail threatens to harm the three other young girls in the room if they speak a word about what they did in the forest with Tituba.
John Proctor comes to see what is wrong with Betty. He confronts Abigail, who says that Betty is just pretending to be ill or possessed by evil spirits. As Proctor and Abigail have this conversation, it becomes clear that the two of them had an affair while Abigail worked in the Proctor household and Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, was ill. Abigail tries to flirt with Proctor, but he firmly tells her that their relationship is over. Abigail blames Elizabeth for his behavior, and tells him that they will be together again someday.
Reverend Parris and the Putnams return, and soon, the Reverend Hale arrives at the Parris home. Hale is a famed witch expert from a nearby town. Suddenly, in front of Reverend Hale, Abigail changes her story and begins to suggest that Tituba did indeed call on the Devil. Tituba, surprised at this accusation, vehemently denies it. But when Rev. Hale and Rev. Parris interrogate Tituba, under pressure she confesses to witchcraft, and fingers several other women as “witches” in the village, including Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. While Tituba and Abigail are accusing women in the town, several other young girls, including Mary Warren (who now works in John Proctor’s household) follow Abigail’s lead and begin accusing other women as well.
Act II opens in the Proctors’ kitchen. Proctor and his wife Elizabeth mourn that their own household helper, Mary Warren, is caught up in the frenzy of accusations. Elizabeth is afraid. They know that Abigail is behind these accusations, and Elizabeth urges Proctor to go to town and reveal that Abigail basically said it was all a hoax. Elizabeth makes an allusion to the affair Proctor had with Abigail, and catches him in a lie – he told her he was not alone with Abigail at the Parris home, but in fact he was. Proctor, irritable and defensive, complains that Elizabeth still doesn’t trust him and never will again, even though he has been a good husband for the last seven months since Abigail left.
Young Mary Warren returns to the Proctors’ house, exhausted from her day assisting in the trials. Proctor reprimands her for being away all day – after all, he declares, Mary is paid to help Elizabeth in the household and has been shirking all of her duties. Mary states that her work in the courts is of great significance; and, with an increased air of importance, Mary insists that she no longer should be ordered around by John Proctor. In a lighter moment, Mary gives Elizabeth a poppet (doll) that she stitched during the day – but, after heightened tension between Mary and Proctor, Mary claims she saved Elizabeth’s life because Elizabeth’s name came up in the trials that day.
When Mary goes to bed, Elizabeth says she has known from the beginning that her name would come up. She tells Proctor that he needs to set things straight with Abigail. He committed adultery with her – and having sex with a woman, Elizabeth says, is tantamount to giving that woman “a promise” – an implicit promise that the two lovers will be together permanently some day. Elizabeth says Proctor must break this promise deliberately. Proctor becomes angry, and again accuses his wife of never forgiving him for his indiscretions.
At this inopportune moment, Reverend Hale arrives. He is going around investigating the people whose names have turned up in the trial. Several other figures from the court show up. They are looking for proof of Elizabeth’s guilt, and inquire about any poppets in the house. Elizabeth says she has no poppets other than the one that Mary gave her that very day. Upon inspection, Mary’s doll is shown to have a needle stuck in its center. As it turns out, earlier that day, Abigail Williams claimed to have been mysteriously stuck with a needle, and accused Elizabeth Proctor of being the culprit. Though Mary does identify the doll as hers, the men cart Elizabeth Proctor off to jail anyway, against the angry protests of Proctor.
Act III opens in the courtroom, where Salem citizens Giles Corey, Francis Nurse, and John Proctor have come to try to interrupt the proceedings. All three have had their wives taken away on accusations of witchcraft. Giles Corey says that some of the accusations have been made so that greedy townspeople can get their hands on the property of those accused. Francis Nurse has brought a signed declaration of the good character of Goody (Mrs.) Corey, Goody Nurse, and Goody Proctor. Ninety-one people have signed it.
In addition, John Proctor brings his household girl, Mary Warren, to confess that she never saw the Devil and she and the other girls have been pretending all this time. When Abigail Williams and the other girls are brought out and confronted with this, they turn on Mary Warren, accusing her of witchcraft. The tension in the courtroom peaks. Proctor tries to put an end to the hysteria by admitting the truth: that he committed adultery with Abigail Williams, who is a liar and an adultress – and this proves that she cannot be trusted.
Abigail denies the accusation of adultery. To uncover the real story, he decides to bring out Proctor’s wife Elizabeth from jail. Since Proctor insists that his wife Elizabeth will not lie, then her confirmation, or denial, of the adultery will set the record straight – and thus affirm Abigail Williams’ credibility, or lack thereof. Before publicly asking Elizabeth about the adultery, Danforth orders both Proctor and Abigail to turn around, so their facial expressions are not visible to Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth does not want to condemn her husband, she lies and says he is not a lecher. Upon this unfortunate turn of events, Danforth proceeds with the hearings, claiming the adultery to be untrue. Danforth sends Elizabeth back to prison as Proctor cries out, “I have confessed it!”
Reverend Hale, shaken, tells Danforth that he believes John Proctor, and asserts that he has always distrusted Abigail Williams. At this, Abigail lets out a “weird, wild, chilling cry” and claims to see a yellow bird on a beam on the ceiling, shrieking that it is Mary Warren threatening her with witchcraft. Eventually, after a creepy scene with the girls following Abigail’s lead of pretend-entrancement, Mary Warren breaks down and joins them once again. Hysterical, Mary lies and says that John Proctor has been after her night and day and made her sign the Devil’s book. Proctor is arrested and taken to jail. Reverend Hale, mortified, denounces the court and walks out.
Act IV opens in a Salem jail cell. It is the day when Rebecca Nurse and John Proctor are to be hanged. Both have resisted confessing up to that point, but Rev. Hale – previously unseen at the court since Proctor’s arrest – is trying to encourage their confession. Even though he knows their confession would be a lie, he wants to save their lives. Rev. Parris is also trying to get them to confess, but that’s because he wants to save his own life: since the trials began, Parris has received some not-so-subtle threats to his life. To make matters worse, Abigail has fled, taking all of Parris’s money with her.
Since Proctor went to jail, over one hundred people have restored their lives by “confessing” to witchcraft, but the town is in shambles. There are orphans, cows wandering all over the place, and people bickering over who gets whose property.
Judge Hathorne and Danforth call upon Elizabeth, still imprisoned, to talk to her husband to see if she can get him to confess. When Elizabeth finally agrees to speak with Proctor (who has been in the dungeon, separated from the other accused), the married couple finally gets a few private moments alone in the courthouse. In these warm exchanges, Elizabeth says she will not judge what Proctor decides to do, and affirms that she believes he is a good man. While Elizabeth will not judge Proctor, she herself cannot confess to witchcraft, as it would be a lie.
Proctor asks for Elizabeth’s forgiveness, and she says he needs to forgive himself. Elizabeth also says she realizes she had been a “cold wife,” which might have driven him to sleep with Abigail. She asks him for forgiveness and says she has never known such goodness in all her life as his. At first, this gives Proctor the determination to live, and he confesses verbally to Danforth and Hathorne.
But Proctor cannot bring himself to sign the “confession.” Knowing that the confession will be pinned to the church door, for his sons and other community members to see, is too much for Proctor to bear. Moreover, he will not incriminate anyone else in the town as a witch. He believes it should be enough to confess verbally and to only incriminate himself. When the court refuses this, Proctor, deeply emotional, tears up the written confession and crumples it. Shocked, Rev. Hale and Rev. Parris plead with Elizabeth to talk sense into her husband, but she realizes that this is, at last, his moment of redemption: “He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!” And so he goes to his death. The curtain falls as we hear the drum beat just before John Proctor is hanged.