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The play begins in the bedroom of Betty Parris, the daughter of the local preacher Samuel Parris. She has fallen ill and into a mania. It is soon discovered that Betty was found with some local girls who were dancing and chanting around a fire in the woods with Parris's slave, Tituba. Panic spreads through the village as people believe that witchcraft is afoot. Reverend Parris sends for the Reverend John Hale, an authority on witchcraft, to investigate what is going on. Reverend Parris questions the manipulative Abigail Williams, who is the unofficial leader of the group of girls, regarding what took place in the forest. Abigail denies any witchcraft and claims she and the girls were simply dancing. Abigail then threatens the other girls to prevent them from revealing what really happened in the forest the last night. John Proctor enters, and Abigail confronts him, alluding to her having an affair with him. When Parris and Hale interrogate Tituba, she confesses to witchcraft after Parris threatens to whip her to death. She accuses Sarah Good and Goody Osborne, and she is only sentenced to a short term in prison. Betty and Abigail take Tituba's cue, confess witchcraft, and start accusing almost all of the women from town.
Late one evening in the Proctor household, John Proctor comes home from planting in his fields to his wife, Elizabeth. Their forced conversation eventually grows into an argument concerning John's past infidelity and Elizabeth's inability to either forgive or forget the incident. Mary Warren, their house servant, comes home in a disturbed state. She is serving as a clerk of the court and witnessed the first handing down of a death sentence to one of the accused witches that very day. She gives Elizabeth a poppet that she made during the trials that day. Mary then goes to bed, but only after telling the Proctors that Elizabeth's name has been mentioned in the court. John and Elizabeth continue their argument, now enhanced by Elizabeth's fear of Abigail and the other girls' vicious power in the courts. They are interrupted by the sudden appearance of John Hale at their doorway. He is traveling from house to house, speaking to those mentioned in the court to gain more information about them. During their discussion, John reveals that he is aware that Abigail and the other girls are lying. They are all then interrupted by two Salem citizens that have had wives arrested, and they are shortly followed by a party come to arrest Elizabeth. They find a needle stuck in the poppet Mary gave Elizabeth, which appears to confirm the accusation on witchcraft made upon Elizabeth by Abigail (this is also called a voodoo doll). The act closes with Elizabeth being taken away and John telling Mary that she will come to the court to dispute the claims made by Abigail.
Act Three takes place 33 days after the events in Act Two, set in the Salem court house. Mr. Corey and Mr. Nurse have come to disrupt the proceedings so that the judges can be presented with evidence that the girls are lying. Judge Danforth, the lead judge in the trials, has little patience for them and dismisses them quickly. Soon, however, John Proctor and Mary Warren arrive to dispute Abigail's claims. Danforth questions Mary and Proctor, revealing that Elizabeth has been found to be pregnant, and decides to investigate the situation further, calling in Abigail and the other girls. The resulting actions result in Corey being arrested for contempt of court and warrants issued for several citizens that had supported the claims of Mr. Nurse. While examining Mary further, Parris and others try to get Mary to demonstrate how she and the other girls would faint. She cannot, and Abigail and the girls start to make accusations against Mary. To attempt to break the hold that Abigail has, John admits to his infidelity with Abigail. In order to determine if John is telling the truth, they call Elizabeth into the courtroom. Despite John's assertion that Elizabeth never lies, she does not admit to any belief that John has ever strayed, in an attempt to save his name. This results in Mary and John's claims being dismissed. Abigail and the other girls then go into violent fits, accusing Mary of dark witchcraft. Mary becomes completely desperate and turns on John Proctor, saying that he is in league with the Devil. John states that if these events can occur, then "God is dead." The courtroom erupts into chaos and the act ends.
Act Four starts with Proctor chained to a jail wall totally isolated from the outside. The authorities send Elizabeth to him, telling her to try to convince Proctor to confess. Proctor gives in to the authorities and the advice of Reverend Hale. Hale is now a broken man who spends all his time with the prisoners, praying with them and hoping to save their lives from their unjust fates. Hale advises prisoners to confess to witchcraft, so that they can live. Proctor signs a confession, but retracts it when he realizes that Danforth intended to nail the confession to the church door (which Proctor fears will ruin his name and the names of other Salemites). The play ends with Proctor and Rebecca Nurse (an accused witch) being led to the gallows.