The setting is in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The opening scene is the home of Parris, a local priest. His daughter Betty appears seriously ill and is lying on her bed unconscious. Parris caught Betty just the previous night, about the midnight hour dancing in the woods with another young woman, Abigail, who is his niece, and Tituba, the black slave he owns. A local doctor has not been able to determine what is wrong with Betty. As Mr. and Mrs. Putnam arrive, they explain that their young daughter Ruth has also fallen ill. We hear of talk throughout the village that the cause of these illnesses is of an unnatural origin.
Meanwhile, Parris’s niece Abigail tries to persuade her friend Mercy Lewis, as well as Mary Warren, who is working as the servant to the Proctors, not to betray the fact that they were all in the woods casting spells. Betty wakes. Abigail threatens violence to anyone who reveals that she drank blood in order to cast a spell to kill Goody Proctor. At this, Betty lapses back into unconsciousness.
During a private conversation between John Proctor and Abigail we get details about their former relationship. While Abigail worked as a servant in the Proctor home, Elizabeth Proctor became ill. As a result, Abigail took on more responsibility in the home and took on a larger role. We learn that during this time a relationship developed between John Proctor and Abigail. When Elizabeth Proctor regained her health, she dismissed Abigail. At this point Abigail is angry because John will not acknowledge his feelings for her.
Betty wakes again and becomes hysterical. She is calmed by Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca is well-respected and during this visit she warns Parris that naming witchcraft as the cause of Betty’s illness will set dangerous things in motion in Salem. At this, Mr. Putnam asks Rebecca to visit Ruth and attempt to wake her. We find out that Ruth is the only surviving child of the Putnams, as the seven others died in infancy. Because of this, we also find out that Mrs. Putnam is jealous of Rebecca because all of her children survived and are healthy.
To further complicate relationships, Putnam, Proctor, Parris, and Giles Corey get involved in an argument over business matters. Parris believes that there are people allied to drive him out of Salem. Putnam, Proctor, and Corey argue over property lines and property ownership. Putnam accuses Proctor of taking wood from the land that he does not own. In response, Proctor claims that the land was rightfully purchased from Francis nurse five months prior, to which Putnam claims Francis did not have a legal deed of ownership to sell the land.
Things become complicated as Reverend Hale arrives in order to investigate the strange happenings and sicknesses in Salem. He has been summoned by the people of Salem who fear that witchcraft is behind the illnesses. Hale finds out that the afflicted girls were in the woods dancing together with Tituba. He believes Tituba is capable of conjuring spirits. At this the girls begin to blame each other. Abigail puts the blame on Tituba who admits that she is capable of conjuring spirits. When Hale questions Tituba she explains that she has seen the devil himself. Tituba tells Hale that Goody Good and Goody Osborn have also seen the devil. When Betty finally wakes up she lists all who have seen the devil.
Eight days pass and Elizabeth and Proctor argue over that fact that she found out Proctor spoke with Abigail privately in Salem. After serving in the court, Mary Warren returns home to Salem. She gives Elizabeth a doll she made while sitting in the courtroom. Mary Warren explains to Proctor that some of the girls accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft. However, the charge is dismissed by the court after she is defended by Mary Warren.
Hale turns his questioning on the Proctor house and asks Proctor about his poor attendance at church. As a test, he asks Proctor to name the Ten Commandments. Proctor names nine of them correctly but seems to forget the commandment against committing adultery. Hale also questions Elizabeth. Proctor admits that Abigail told him the witchcraft allegations are false.
Marshal Herrick arrives. He arrests Elizabeth after Abigail feels a needle stab earlier in the evening and accuses Elizabeth of attempting to murder her. The authorities of Salem search the Proctor home and find the doll Marry Warren had given Elizabeth. They also find a needle. After Hale questions Mary Warren, she admits that she sewed the doll and put the needle inside it. She tells Hale that Abigail saw her sew the doll and also saw her place the needle inside. Nevertheless, he has Elizabeth arrested.
Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse are convicted of witchcraft. However, Giles Corey explains to the court that he can prove that the accusations are based on Proctor’s scheme to gain more land and that the charges are false. Judge Danforth demands that Corey reveal the source for his claims and he refuses to give over the name. Corey is arrested. At this, Judge Danforth tells Proctor that Elizabeth is pregnant.
The court proceedings involve the girls making accusations toward each other. Mary Warren tells the court that she lied and pretended to see spirits. She admits that her accusations against the others are false. She also tells the court that Abigail and the other girls are also lying. Abigail denies this. She and the other girls accuse Mary of using spirits against them in the court.
Proctor calls Mary a lying whore and denounces the charges against Mary Warren. Proctor admits his affair with Abigail to the court. He also states that Abigail is lying to the court in order to get Elizabeth executed so she can marry Proctor. He goes on to state that Elizabeth would never lie. The court summons her and questions her. She is unaware that her husband has already admitted to the affair and she lies to the court. She is sent back to jail. Abigail continues to accuse Mary Warren of attacking her. Mary Warren eventually recants her confession. She says she lied about the witchcraft and she accuses Proctor of being in league with the devil.
After several months, we find Proctor in prison, as is Rebecca Nurse, awaiting execution by hanging. Elizabeth’s execution has been delayed until she gives birth, but she too waits in prison. Proctor confesses all and signs a written confession. However, he cannot bear to have the confession made public and decides to take the guilt with him to the grave. He destroys the affidavit rather than see it posted on the church. The play ends as we hear the drum beats as he is taken to the gallows.