In The Crucible, a play set during the mass hysteria of the Salem witch trials, several young women accuse the slave Tituba of witchcraft. Following this, other people in the town are also accused, and soon there is a series of trials that uncover the jealousy, passion, and resentment simmering under the surface of the town. Written in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism, the play warns of the dangers of paranoia and distrust spiraling out of control and ruining the lives of innocent people.
But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there is no road between.
This line, spoken by Danforth in the third act, expresses the irrational way in which the court sees defense against accusations. Any defense that someone makes on someone's behalf, is immediately seen as an attack on the court. The court's power, coming from paranoia and hysteria, is precarious and must be protected against all potential attackers.
This demonstrates the theme that the search for the 'invisible' truth is impossible and unsupportable, as it creates an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, where the search for truth is quickly lost in favor of the search for power. The officials of the court attempt to paint things in black and white, but the issues, which they are dealing with, are impossible to categorize in this way. As a court supported by God, they have the moral right, and anyone who suggests that they have made a mistake or are misguided are necessarily criticizing the church and all that is right.
A man may think God sleeps, but God sees everything, I know it now...She thinks to dance with me on my wife's grave! And well she might, for I thought of her softly. God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such a sweat. But it is a whore's vengeance, and you must see it.
Proctor says this line in the third act once he realizes that he must confess his lechery publicly, for it is the only chance he has to show Abigail for what she is. It is the climax of the play, as the truth of his affair becomes known by all. By speaking out, he finally understands the consequences of his indiscretion, which to this point, he had ignored. He had refused to think about the promises he made to Abigail and the way in which he almost placed her on a level equivalent with Elizabeth by sharing himself with her. She took the mistake he made and twisted to her own purpose, by causing the hysteria, and continues to use it, by accusing Elizabeth.
By confessing his crime he is attempting to cast Abigail back down, and remove the power the court grants her. He is forced to plead his case with the court, and admit publicly what he had believed could remain secret. When this action has no effect, he learns that it is not the public confession that is necessary, but a personal sacrifice.
A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud-God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!
At the end of the third act, once Mary has turned on him and rejoined Abigail, he denounces the court, and gives up all hope for resolution. He lets his rage loose, and it is then that he expresses the idea that they are all committing the worst sin of all by killing the innocent in order to maintain a superficial order. It is only to perpetuate the power of the court that the girls are supported, even in light of evidence that casts doubt on their honesty. Danforth believes the girls because he needs to believe the girls for his own benefit. If he was to doubt their sincerity for a second, it would require that he reconsider all that he had done until that point. The consequences are too great to consider, and his reputation too precious for him to toy with, and thus he continues to maintain the obvious lie.
This maintenance of the lie is the height of hypocrisy. Once Proctor clears himself of his own, he is in the position to point out the hypocrisy of others. Abigail once told him that he opened her eyes to the pretence of the people around her, and it is this knowledge that she uses to fuel the hysteria in the first place. Proctor feels his responsibility for the situation, and attempts to make Danforth and the others see theirs as well. The only other person who does is Rev. Hale, who also denounces the hearings.
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
In this moment, in the fourth act, Proctor has realized the importance of his own personal integrity. It is the only thing over which he has total control and by signing the confession, he would be handing it over to Danforth and the others. If he were to give them the confession, he would be working against everything that he had lived for up until that point. It is not for the love of the public that he wants his reputation untarnished; it is for personal and religious reasons that he cannot surrender control of his integrity to anyone else.
In addition, he knows that in the past he did not make the correct moral choices, and this is his final chance to redeem himself. He can make the correct choice here, by denouncing the courts once and for all, and acting on the goodness that he knows his present within his soul.