The third act takes place in the vestry room of the Salem meeting house, which is now serving as the anteroom of the General Court. Judge Hathorne asks Martha Corey if she denies being a witch, which she does. She claims to not know what a witch is, to which he replies "how do you know, then, that you are not a witch?"
From outside, Giles Corey shouts that Thomas Putnam is reaching out for land, but Danforth, the Deputy Governor, silences him. Giles forces his way into the court with Reverend Hale. Giles presents himself to Danforth and Hathorne, telling them that he owns six hundred acres and timber. Giles says he means no disrespect to the court, but he only meant that his wife was reading books, not that she was a witch.
Francis Nurse also presents himself, and tells Danforth that he has proof that the girls are frauds. Danforth reminds him that he has four hundred persons in jail upon his signature, and seventy-two condemned to hang. Mary Warren enters with Proctor, and Parris warns him that Proctor is mischief. Proctor tells Danforth that Mary Warren never saw any spirits, and he presents a deposition signed by Mary Warren that asserts this. Parris thinks that they have come to overthrow the court. Mary admits that her fits of bewitchment were pretense. Danforth questions Proctor, wondering whether he has any hidden intention to undermine the court. Cheever tells Danforth how Proctor ripped up the warrant, but Proctor says that it was only out of temper. Cheever also tells Danforth how Proctor plows on Sunday and does not come to church. Proctor asks Danforth if it strikes him odd that these women have lived so long with such an upright reputation only to be accused.
Danforth tells Proctor that his wife is pregnant; although Proctor did not know this, he tells them that Elizabeth never lies. Danforth agrees to let Elizabeth live another month so that she may show signs of pregnancy, and if she is pregnant she will live another year so that she may deliver.
Proctor submits a deposition to Danforth signed by ninety-one citizens attesting to their good opinion of Rebecca, Martha Corey and Elizabeth. Parris demands that these ninety-one be summoned for questioning, and claims it is an attack on the court. Hale asks if every defense is an attack on the court, but Parris tells him that all innocent and Christian people are satisfied with the courts in Salem. Mary Warren begins to sob. Hathorne reads the deposition, and asks which lawyer wrote it, but Giles says that he wrote it. He has been a plaintiff in thirty-three court cases, and thus has great experience with the law. Hathorne's father even tried a case of Corey's.
Mr. Putnam arrives, and Danforth tells him that there is an accusation that he prompted his daughter to cry witchery upon George Jacobs. Giles claims that the proof is that if Jacobs hangs for a witch he forfeits his property and only Putnam can buy it. Giles claims that someone told him that he heard Putnam say that his daughter gave him a fair gift of land when she accused Jacobs. Giles refuses to name this person, however. When Danforth threatens Giles with contempt, Giles responds that this is not an official court session. Danforth arrests Giles for contempt, and Giles makes a rush for Putnam, but Proctor holds him back. Proctor comforts Mary. Hale advises Danforth that he cannot say that Proctor is an honest man, but it would be better to send him home to hire a lawyer. Hale has signed seventy-two death warrants, and he claims that he dares not take a life without examining any reasonable doubt. He now doubts the guilt of Rebecca Nurse.
Danforth explains that witchcraft is by its very nature an invisible crime, thus only the witch and the victim will witness it. The witch will not accuse herself, thus one must rely on the victim. Parris wishes to question them, but Danforth tells him to be silent. Mary Warren claims that she is with God now, and Danforth tells her that she is either lying now or was lying earlier, and in either case committed perjury. Abigail enters with the other girls. Abigail tells Danforth that Goody Proctor always kept poppets. Proctor claims that he believes Abigail means to murder his wife, and orders Mary to tell Danforth how the girls danced in the woods naked. Parris tells Danforth that he never found anybody naked, but admits to finding them dancing. Parris demands that Mary Warren pretend to faint as she had done before, but she cannot, for she has no sense of it. She once thought she saw spirits, but now she does not.
Abigail threatens Danforth, claiming that the powers of Hell may affect him soon. Abigail pretends that she feels a sharp wind threatening her. Proctor calls Abigail a whore and grabs her by the hair. Finally he admits that he had an affair with Abigail. The court fears that if this is true, it finally provides a motivation for Abigail to be lying. Danforth orders Parris to bring Elizabeth to the court. If Elizabeth admits to firing Abigail for her affair with Proctor, Danforth will charge Abigail. Proctor is confident that his wife would never, could never lie, even to save him. But Elizabeth is questioned with her back towards Proctor so they cannot communicate, and she says that she fired Abigail because she displeased her, and because she thought that her husband fancied her. She says that Proctor never committed lechery. Proctor cries out for Elizabeth to tell the truth, that he has already confessed, but Danforth orders Elizabeth to leave.
Proctor says that his wife meant only to save his reputation. Hale claims that it is a natural lie to tell, and to stop before another person is condemned. Abigail then claims that she sees Mary Warren's spirit manifested as a bird, trying to hurt her. Mary Warren sobs that she is merely standing in court, but Abigail continues with the charade. Mary Warren claims that the girls are lying, but after Danforth threatens her and Abigail refuses to stop her charade, Mary submits and accuses Proctor of being the Devil's man. She says that Proctor made her sign the Devil's book and made her try to overthrow the court. Danforth orders Proctor to admit his allegiance with Satan, but Proctor cries out that God is dead, and that a fire is burning because the court is "pulling Heaven down and raising up a whore." Hale denounces the proceedings and quits the court.
Amongst the characters in the play, it is Deputy Governor Danforth who seems to provide the most obvious symbol of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Danforth rules over the proceedings as if the accused are guilty until proven innocent, and adopts a harsh and vindictive air. However, Miller does not make Danforth a direct equivalent of the irrational demagogue McCarthy; rather, Danforth is a stern, cold man of unfailing faith in his judicial powers. He does not manifest any particular political ambition, but instead acts to preserve the strength of the court over which he rules. This does make Danforth suspicious of any attack on the plaintiffs and the proceedings, but also allows him some room for flexibility. He uses reason to persuade Proctor to drop his charges against Abigail, telling him that his wife is spared for at least a year and that he need not worry about her execution. It is Danforth's stern rationality that makes him a more disturbing figure; he is not a malicious villain equivalent to Abigail, but rather a man who has intense faith in the integrity of his court. He operates under the assumption that good and evil can be clearly and intensely defined, a flaw of tragic irony. In his desperate hope to sharply delineate good and evil, Danforth becomes the willing accomplice of those who obscure this line.
It is Reverend Parris who appears as the demagogue in this act of the play, denouncing all challenges to the court as challenges to Christianity and God himself. Parris is paranoid and foolish, demanding that all ninety-one people who attest to the good name of the three accused women be brought in for questioning. It is Parris' rabid defense of the trials that finally causes Hale to break from the court and offer a defense of the Proctors, Coreys and Nurses. Parris' demagoguery is placed into even sharper relief once the true reason for the girls' admission of witchcraft is revealed. Parris knows that the trials are a fraud and that the girls are lying, yet continues to push against witchcraft to suit his ends.
Miller develops the motivations of the proponents of the witchcraft trials in this chapter. Reverend Parris remains motivated by suspicion and paranoia, while Thomas Putnam moves from an original motivation of grudges against others to unabashed greed. Abigail Williams, in contrast, has moved from self-preservation to a more general lust for power. However, upon the arrest of Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, Reverend Hale now eschews the supernatural explanations for more concrete, legal explanations. He redeems himself from his role as a Pontius Pilate by serving as an advocate for justice. This is significant, for it provides concrete evidence that opposition to the trials does not necessarily mean opposition to law and order.
Deputy Governor Danforth espouses the central irony of the witchcraft trials: because there can be no concrete evidence of witchcraft, one must trust the word of the accuser as to whether any witchcraft has occurred at all. This essentially negates the idea of evidence, taking opinion and allegation to be concrete fact. It is this flaw on which Abigail Williams and the other girls capitalize when making their accusations.
Miller establishes that it takes only a simple accusation for a person to be convicted of witchcraft. Thomas Putnam uses this for economic gain, coercing his daughter into accusing George Jacobs so that he may purchase his land once Jacobs has been executed. Yet it is Abigail Williams who brings this particular quality into sharp relief. Abigail is intense and dramatic; she targets the weak-willed Mary Warren, knowing that she will easily break from her alliance with Proctor once challenged. When Abigail pretends to see a yellow bird attacking her, it is an obvious falsehood that is nevertheless admissible as evidence in this court of law.
The act ends by encompassing two central ironies. The first of these is that, to prove his own innocence and prove himself faithful to his wife, John Proctor must publicly declare his infidelity. To save Elizabeth and protect himself from an inevitable accusation of witchcraft, Proctor must tear down his name and condemn himself for the crime of lechery. Despite Proctor's obvious sin, this places Proctor as a martyr, sacrificing any chance for a good reputation in Salem, where public reputation is essential, in order to save his wife and others wrongly accused of witchcraft.
The second irony involves the testimony of Elizabeth Proctor. To save her husband's life, she must condemn him for lechery. Miller establishes that she is an honest woman who never lies, yet at the moment in which her honesty is most critical she chooses the noble yet practical lie, and defends her husband. As Hale notes, it is a natural lie for Elizabeth Proctor to tell, yet an incredibly ill-timed one; Elizabeth Proctor chooses dishonesty at the precise moment that her integrity matters the most.
Miller continues the theme of revolving accusations in this act when Mary finally breaks down and accuses Proctor of witchcraft. Fearful of her own life, Mary realizes that the only way to save herself is to accuse Proctor of coercing her into overthrowing the court. In this case the accusation contains some truth: Proctor did force Mary Warren into testifying - and yet, in this case the purpose is to promote true justice rather than to obscure it.
At the end of this act, Proctor condemns himself by claiming that God is dead. When he states this, he speaks metaphorically, lamenting a world in which the ostensibly just and moral society of Salem can be overthrown by one strong-willed girl. Once again Proctor gives in to melodramatics when faced with injustice. He may be correct, yet expresses his righteousness through means that make him an easy target for the likes of Abigail and Reverend Parris.