The scene under consideration in Act 2 is characterised by an atmosphere of mounting tension. This is a feature of the play as a whole as we observe the community of Salem being overtaken by collective hysteria in which, ultimately, no one feels safe. History provides many examples of the way in which religious movements and political ideologies can be distorted into forms that represent a contradiction of the teachings expanded and the examples set by their founders.
Arthur Miller draws parallels between the Salem witch-hunt and America in the McCarthy era, but, the reigns of terror unleashed by Stalin in the 1930’s, by Mao Tse-Tung in the Cultural Revolution and by Robespierre in the French Revolution are other examples. Whenever a single ideology is granted, a pre-eminent position is established in a community at the expense of human rights and democratic freedoms, there is an ever present danger that ignorance, bigotry and fanaticism may overwhelm a community, leading to monstrous injustice which no one feels able to challenge.
No one feels able to doubt Abigail because the penalty for such honesty, as Proctor learns in the climax of the play, is death. The scene under consideration is pivotal because by the end of it, the truth of Proctor’s assertion that “the world is gone daft with this nonsense” is clear. The fate of all the adults in the community lies in the hands of a group of children led by the duplicitous Abigail Williams.
Hale enters at a particularly tense moment: John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth have just been arguing over John’s past adulterous liaison with Abigail Williams, and this is part of the reason for the tense atmosphere between the three of them. The other reason is the fact that Hale is involved in the investigation into the charges of witchcraft, having been called in because of his supposed expertise in the subject-and both John and Elizabeth are aware of this.
However, both sides attempt to diffuse the tension in the atmosphere: Hale is said to have “a quality of deference, even of guilt, about his manner,” and begins by wishing them “Good evening,” and saying to Elizabeth “I hope I do not startle you. ” The Proctors for their part, make every effort to conceal their emotional turmoil: John, “still in his shock,” extends a hearty welcome to Hale, attempting to convey the impression that he assumes Hale’s visit to be no more than a social call.
He says, “Come in, come in,” and later “to explain his nervousness,” comments that “we are not used to visitors after dark, but you are welcome sir. ” Elizabeth attempts to excuse her startled look on Hale’s appearance by haltingly explaining “it’s only that I heard no horse,” and later sits down at Hale’s invitation “never letting him out of her sight. ” There is an awkward pause, and then Proctor “to break the silence” offers Hale a glass of cider.
Finally Hale “wets his lips” and proceeds to explain the purpose of his visit: he has come to discuss with them the fact that Elizabeth’s name has been mentioned in court. By situating Hale’s arrival at this high moment of tension between John and Elizabeth and by underlining the bluff heartiness of John’s welcome and Elizabeth’s startled, uneasy reaction to Hale’s appearance in this way, Miller has created an atmosphere of tension and suspense.
Hale is cast in the role of inquisitor, whose duty it is to uncover heresy and blasphemy in the community. His sincerity is not in doubt, but sincerity alone does not justify or validate someone’s actions. By portraying the Proctors as trying desperately to conceal their apprehension, Miller presents them as vulnerable. They are not yet under arrest, Hale has come “of his own authority,” but all that could easily change- and as a result of the tense atmosphere created by Miller, the audience is well aware of this.