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The setting of the second act, a quiet domestic scene in the Proctor household, is a sharp contrast to the commotion at Reverend Parris’ house in the first act. Physically, the Proctor house seems far removed from the hysteria that is transpiring in the town of Salem, but even this quiet, domestic haven is struck with accusations of witchcraft by the end of the act. Additionally, the second act further develops the motives and personalities of the main characters of the play. It establishes Proctor's love for his wife and his genuine remorse for having committed adultery. His sin of having slept with Abigail, the chief accuser of the witch hunt, will greatly influence the shape and outcome of the play. Proctor hesitates to testify against Abigail, for he fears that his past sins will become a focus in the courtroom and cause him to be outcast by this Puritan society. This act also shows the strength of Proctor’s character. He stands up to Hale, calling him a “Pontius Pilate” and tries to prevent Elizabeth’s arrest. His prevailing upon Mary Warren that she must go to the court and tell the truth indicate his basic commitment to the process of law and his faith in the uprightness of others.
Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, is developed for the first time in the play, and it is obvious that she is a good woman. She loves her family, both her husband and her children, and is comfortable in the peaceful environs of her home. She also believes in Christian virtues. Although distressed over her husband’s adultery, she has forgiven him and still loves him. She also believes that a person must do what is right, no matter the cost. As a result, she tells John that he must go to Salem and try to stop the witch hunt, revealing what he knows about Abigail. Her words, however, do not convince him. Elizabeth must be charged as a witch and arrested before he is challenged into action.
Hale is shown in a dual light, both prejudiced and fair. He visits the citizens of Salem so that he might know them better before judging them and volunteers to testify in the court about whatever good he knows of Elizabeth; he also assures Francis Nurse that justice will be done in respect to his wife, Rebecca. At the same time, he refuses to believe John’s story about Abigail and questions why the Proctors do not attend church more regularly and why their youngest son is not baptized. It is obvious that he is convinced that witches are present in Salem, and he uses the argument that the Devil is a wily and unrecognizable character when he does his evil work. When Elizabeth says she does not believe in witches, Reverend Hale is genuinely shocked. It is sad that a minister is so easily swayed by the fantastic stories and accusations of a few young girls, who obviously are no longer rational under the influence of their power over others.
Abigail, the chief instigator and accuser of the witch hunts, is a powerful figure. The other girls are obviously under her spell and quite afraid of her. Mary does not want to go to court and tell what she knows, for she is afraid of Abigail’ retaliation. In addition, it is obvious that Abigail is jealous of and out for revenge against Elizabeth Proctor. She is so determined to have Elizabeth accused as a witch that she is willing to drive a needle into her own abdomen as proof that Proctor’s wife has cast a spell on her and wants her dead. It is upon Abigail’s accusations that Elizabeth is arrested.
Mary serves to develop the plot of the play. When Proctor tells her she must go to Salem and tell the truth about what she knows, she openly refuses to follow his order. It is a small instance of the questioning of authority and the exercise of power, but it foreshadows the general attitudes of the guilty girls who refuse to do what is right. Mary is also involved in another tense moment when she is asked about the poppet; fortunately, she shows her essential goodness and innocence by admitting that that the poppet belongs to her, and not Elizabeth. Mary is weak, however, and fears Abigail, so she does not wish to testify in court. This weakness in her character will be responsible for the sudden about-face she does in Act III, when she finds that her own life may be endangered if she stands by John Proctor.
Act II establishes the tentativeness of the accusations made in Act I, showing them to be an exercise mainly directed at saving the accusers' own skins. The Salem witch-hunting process, thus, shifts from looking for witches to making people into ones. Goody Osborn is convicted as a witch because when she came begging for food and was turned away by Mary, the young girl fell sick. Goody Osborn is accused of having cast a spell on Mary to gain revenge for being denied food; for this, she will be hung. Many of the people who are accused, such as Rebecca and Elizabeth, have always been respected as honest and good; now, because their names are uttered by one of the girls, they are arrested.
The rising action of the play now focuses on the fact that honesty is not trusted in the midst of a deliberatelyconstructed hysteria. In this chapter, Miller is clearly beginning to show how easy it is for justice to fail in the face social pressure. Although he is a minister, Hale is shown to be incompetent in judging goodness or evil in anyone. Proctor asks him why the accusers are "holy" while the accused are presumed guilty, and he has no answer. It is obvious that religion has been corrupted, for mere surface presentations and hysterical accusations take precedence over actual goodness. It is ironic that Proctor, who is unable to recite the tenth commandment and who attends church only sporadically, is seen as corrupt, though it is corruption in the church that keeps him away from it. In fact Proctor, openly criticizes the materialism of the church and Reverend Parris during the play.
Although it does not do so overtly, The Crucible deals with issues of gender. The accusers in the play are a group of young, hysterical females, and the majority of people that they accuse are women, such as Elizabeth and Rebecca. In spite of the false accusations against them, it is the female characters who act courageously and with faith. At the same time, most of the male characters are unable to defend the truth, due to their moral weakness and skepticism. Although there are both evil and self-interested male and female characters in the play, there are no main male characters who display the steadfastness and courage of Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor.