Twelve Angry Men

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Themes and Colors
Reflection of American Society Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon
Stubbornness and Taking a Stand Theme Icon
Prejudice vs. Sympathies Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Twelve Angry Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Certainty and Doubt Theme Icon

The jury of Twelve Angry Men begins its deliberations with a vote of 11-1 in favor of guilty and ends 12-0 in favor of not guilty. From this, we might conclude that the jury started with false certainty and deliberated until they uncovered the certain truth. However, the jury is never able to establish whether or not the defendant is innocent. Rather than uncovering certainty, their deliberations uncover doubt—enough doubt that they do not feel that the evidence is enough to convict the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In fact, the play and the jury deliberations might be described as not just the jury’s journey from certainty to doubt in terms of the case, but also of the jury’s shift from looking at the world with certainty – certainty about what is true and certainty about the correctness of one’s own views – to taking a more skeptical view, a more doubtful view, of facts presented as truth and of the rightness of one’s own perspective.

Only Juror Eight has any doubt about the boy’s guilt after the first vote. The rest think much like Juror Twelve: “After six days, he doesn’t know. In six days I could learn calculus. This is A, B, C.” These jurors want certainty, because doubt is uncomfortable and scary, and might make them miss Christmas dinner. Doubt doesn’t get you answers or closure. As one jury member puts it to Juror Eight: "Suppose you talk us outta this and the kid really did knife his father?" Yet, as the jurors delve into their deliberations, evidence that seemed solid comes into question, and we hear less about how the jurors want to go home quickly.

Once they are all taking the evidence seriously, prompted by Juror Eight, the jurors have to start to worry about the unreliability of the witnesses, like the old man and the woman across the tracks. For Juror Three, who is certain of the defendant’s guilt, the eyewitnesses are infallible, even after doubt is raised over whether the old man downstairs or the woman across the El tracks could possibly have seen and heard what they said they did. For jurors like Juror Five, though, the old man’s testimony leaves them in a muddle—while Juror Five is not convinced that the old man lied, he has to acknowledge that there is doubt about whether the old man heard and saw what he said he did, and Juror Five is the third one to change his vote. Although the slow movement of jurors to the side of “not guilty” may seem like steady progress towards greater certainty in light of consideration of the evidence, the jurors who change their minds do not express certainty in their new vote either.

Interestingly, as the jurors begin to face and admit to the many reasonable doubts about the case, their attitudes towards each other changes as well. At first, the jurors make blanket moral judgments about each other and whole groups of people. Their certainty about the truth of their own perspectives makes them hard and unkind to each other. Yet as they admit to doubts about the case, it seems almost as if those doubts cause them to soften their stances, to admit that their initial perceptions might have been wrong about more than just the case. The principles each juror felt certain about going into the case are shaken not only by the arguing and the evidence, but because the jurors are forced to face the doubts that they have hidden behind their own biases, prejudices, and irrationalities. As the jurors come to be more comfortable in admitting doubt, they cease to treat other quite as much like categories or types and treat each other, instead, as individual people.

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Certainty and Doubt ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Certainty and Doubt appears in each Act of Twelve Angry Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Certainty and Doubt Quotes in Twelve Angry Men

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelve Angry Men related to the theme of Certainty and Doubt.
Act 1 Quotes

Murder in the first degree—premeditated homicide—is the most serious charge tried in our criminal courts. You've heard a long and complex case, gentlemen, and it is now your duty to sit down to try and separate the facts from the fancy. One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. If there is a reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused . . . then you must declare him not guilty. If, however, there is no reasonable doubt, then he must be found guilty. Whichever way you decide, the verdict must be unanimous. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully. You are faced with a grave responsibility. Thank you, gentlemen.

Related Characters: Judge (speaker), Accused kid, Murdered father
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The play opens with the judge in a criminal court case summarizing for both audience and jury what is at stake in this case. His words spell out the basic principles of the American legal system: a jury must declare the accused guilty if, and only if, his or her guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This passage has the dual effect of setting the scene and introducing a few of the most contentious topics of the play. Broadly, the judge places the play in conversation with the American legal system. The setting of the play is timeless, but the twelve jurors represent a diverse body of Americans intended to present a variety of types of opinions from a variety of types of people, with a variety of types of prejudices and personalities--all in connection to the timeless legal and social issues addressed in the play. 

The topic of this play is justice, but also the way the very human jury thinks about and perceives justice. The judge establishes the jurors' responsibility to be a "grave" one and asks that they "deliberate honestly and thoughtfully." The next several lines of the play show a different reality, as the men complain about the court proceedings and rush the deliberation process. Furthermore, the idea of "reasonable doubt" is highlighted immediately in this opening passage. Reasonable doubt, what it is and what constitutes reasonable doubt in this specific case, will be under debate throughout the play--particularly when reasonable doubt is in the hands of unreasonable humans.


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Three: I never saw a guiltier man in my life... You sat right in court and heard the same thing I did. The man's a dangerous killer. You could see it.


Eight: He's nineteen years old.

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Unlike Ten's collective prejudice, Three displays a more specific and personal dislike of the accused kid. Eventually it becomes clear that Three has bad memories of his son and holds onto the accused kid's guilt to an irrational degree because of this strained relationship. Three is the least rational of the jurors. He is stubborn and he does not waffle like some of the others, but he bases his opinion on impressions and feelings, rather than facts. Here, he exhibits this tendency when he says "you could see" that the accused kid is a dangerous killer, simply by looking at him. Three's certainty of the kid's guilt is founded on shaky ground. At the same time, Eight's doubt is also emotionally-based, as his reply demonstrates. Where Three sees a killer, Eight sees a kid. Eight is inclined to give a kid the benefit of the doubt because of his age. 

From the beginning to the end of the play, Eight and Three reverse roles. At the beginning, Eight stands alone for "not guilty," and at the end, Three stands alone for "guilty." This parallel between the characters shows their similarities and differences. They both base their initial opinions of the kid on their prejudices, but they behave very differently when "taking a stand." Three continues his stubborn conviction based on his feelings, whereas Eight, despite his own sentiments, turns to logic and reasoning to address others. He does not fold under the pressure Three (and the others) put on him for standing alone.

Nine: (to Ten very slowly). I don't know that. What a terrible thing for a man to believe! Since when is dishonesty a group characteristic? You have no monopoly on the truth.

Related Characters: Nine (speaker), Ten
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Ten's prejudiced statements against the group that the accused kid belongs to turn Nine against him. Nine sees Ten's statements as illogical because they assume that generalizations about groups of people are true. He questions Ten: "since when is dishonesty a group characteristic?" This remark points out the flaws in all prejudices rather than providing commentary on this specific example. The accused kid might be honest or dishonest. The audience never discovers this one way or the other in the course of the play. However, Nine makes the argument that to assume dishonesty of an individual because he is part of a certain group is flawed logic. Even if a stereotype exists for a reason, it is unfair to apply this stereotype to everyone in the group. There will always be many exceptions to the rule. 

Nine shows Ten that prejudices are flawed because they assume more certainty than one should rationally claim. Ten assumes that the kid is dishonest and, therefore, guilty. Nine says this is a horrible thing to believe because it leads to certainty without any foundation. Ten makes an assumption without evidence in a specific case. Yet, he is very certain about his assumption. Nine, on the other hand, feels it is worthwhile to always consider the exceptions to the rule and to avoid broad assumptions. He lives his life with more doubt and more questions because he does not make assumptions about groups of people as a whole. He looks (or tries to look) at people as individuals. 

Four: Take a look at that knife. It's a very strange knife. I've never seen one like it before in my life and neither had the storekeeper who sold it to him.

[Eight reaches casually into his pocket and withdraws an object. No one notices this. He stands up quietly.]

Four: Aren't you trying to make us accept a pretty incredible coincidence?

Eight: I'm not trying to make anyone accept it. I'm just saying it's possible.

Three: (shouting). And I'm saying it's not possible.

[Eight swiftly flicks open the blade of a switch knife and jams it into the table next to the first one. They are exactly alike. There are several gasps and everyone stares at the knife. There is a long silence.]

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Four (speaker), Eight (speaker)
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 23-24
Explanation and Analysis:

Four offers the most rational arguments for the accused kid's guilt. He is reasonable and calm in his delivery and seems more interested in the logical steps of the case than Three or Ten, who have personal and impassioned reasons for blaming and accusing the kid. Therefore, Four's shift from certainty to doubt seems to be the most accurate measure in the play of the success of Eight's arguments for reasonable doubt. 

One of Four's reasons for certainty, as detailed in this passage, is the unusual appearance of the knife used to kill the father. It seems highly unlikely that another identical knife could have been purchased and used in the murder of the father. Four refers to this possibility--that the kid bought an identical knife to the one someone else used to kill his father--as a "pretty incredible coincidence." This helps clarify the term "reasonable doubt." Yes, Four says, there's a possibility that someone else bought the exact same knife, but this is not a "reasonable" possibility. It is, in fact, a highly unlikely possibility. When Eight produces an identical knife and jams it into the table, however, the gesture is strong visual proof that this possibility is more reasonable than it might have seemed. He was able to easily procure an identical knife, which means that any other person might have been able to as well. This causes the jurors to doubt their original certainty that the knife the kid bought is the same one that killed his father. 

Seven: Now wait a second. What are you, the guy's lawyer? Listen, there are still eleven of us who think he's guilty. You're alone. What do you think you're gonna accomplish? If you want to be stubborn and hang this jury, he'll be tried again and found guilty, sure as he's born.

Eight: You're probably right.

Seven: So what are you gonna do about it? We can be here all night.

Nine: It's only one night. A man may die.

Related Characters: Seven (speaker), Eight (speaker), Nine (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Seven is one of the least engaged jurors; he seems to prioritize concluding the case and leaving, with little respect for the seriousness of the situation, as this passage shows. Despite his motives for rushing the decision, Seven makes a legitimate point about Eight taking a stand against the rest of the jurors. In choosing to stand alone, Eight is preventing a decision that is held by the majority, and that would be reinforced by another group of people if Eight's stubbornness resulted in a hung jury. Eight acknowledges the truth of these words. This shows the tension between stubbornness and taking a stand in the play. When is it good to stand up for what you believe and when is it appropriate to acknowledge that your thinking could be at fault? The play seems to answer that both are important. Three, at the end of the play, must yield to the majority. Eight, at the beginning, takes a stand for a good cause. 

Nine highlights Seven's frivolity in the face of what is at stake in these deliberations: a man's life. Seven's impatience with Eight is partly justified because there are times when one should be able to admit they could be wrong in the face of an overwhelming majority who disagrees. But Seven's impatience is not justified in terms of the ideal proceedings of justice. The legal system is designed to serve justice after thorough consideration and deliberation, and Seven is unwilling to sacrifice his time, even when another man's life is at stake. 

Act 2 Quotes

Eight: An el train takes ten seconds to pass a given point, or two seconds per car. That el had been going by the old man's window for at least six seconds and maybe more, before the body fell, according to the woman. The old man would have had to hear the boy say, "I'm going to kill you," while the front of the el was roaring past his nose. It's not possible that he could have heard it.

Related Characters: Eight (speaker), The old man downstairs, The woman across the street
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage details one of Eight's arguments that introduces doubt into the case. The old man, one of the witnesses, heard the accused kid yell, "I'm going to kill you," and this piece of evidence helped solidify both the identity of the killer and the boy's intentions. However, the other main witness described these events through the window of a train roaring past the apartment building. How could the old man have heard the boy yell over the sound of the train? How can both these testimonies be true? By finding an inconsistency between the two testimonies, Eight calls both into question. Someone must have made a mistake or be lying, and this discredits the full testimony of the witness. It is unclear which witness is at fault, and so the jurors begin to doubt everything they accepted as fact from both witnesses. 

Over the course of this play, there is a gradual shift from certainty to doubt among the jurors. Certainty leads to a verdict of "guilty." They are never sure of the accused kid's innocence, and yet they begin to realize that his guilt is not certain. This doubt leads to a verdict of "not guilty." The terms "guilty" and "not guilty" reflect the relationship between certainty and doubt in a legal case. The terms are not "guilty" and "innocent"--instead, reasonable doubt is enough for a "not guilty" verdict. This shift from certainty to doubt occurs when the jurors begin to doubt the eyewitnesses' accounts of what happened.

Nine: It's just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That's a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.

Twelve: And you're trying to tell us he lied about a thing like this just so that he could be important?

Nine: No. He wouldn't really lie. But perhaps he'd make himself believe that he heard those words and recognized the boy's face.

Related Characters: Nine (speaker), The old man downstairs
Page Number: 33-34
Explanation and Analysis:

Nine feels that he understands the character of the old man who testified because he can relate most to him, as an old and (presumably) overlooked man himself. He points out details about the old man that he paid attention to and that might have seemed insignificant to the other jurors. He explains that the old man's ragged coat and his insecurities make him someone who is eager and grateful for the attention of the court. The psychological impact of this, to someone who is in desperate need of attention, will be to prolong that interaction. Twelve misunderstands this, as is clear when he asks whether Nine means that the old man lied in his testimony. Lying implies that the old man knowingly deceived the court and the jurors. Nine is speaking of something more subtle: the old man's slight exaggeration of his own certainty. He might have come to believe that he definitely saw the accused kid in the stairwell when in fact he wasn't certain at first. 

This passage provides another angle on the relationship between doubt and certainty. Doubt and certainty are not only the products of reason, but of emotion and memory. Even an eyewitness can be unsure of what he or she saw. Emotional pressure can impact one's certainty. It is easy, with time, to become more or less certain of what happened before one's eyes. Eye witnesses can be very unreliable for this reason. The doubt or certainty of the jurors is based on evidence which is already shifting between doubt and certainty. 

Three: (angrily). He's an old man. You saw him. Half the time he was confused. How could he be positive about anything? [Looks around sheepishly, unable to cover up his blunder.]

Related Characters: Three (speaker), The old man downstairs
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

The old man's testimony has seemingly been undermined by Nine's comments that the old man might have had a reason to exaggerate, to claim he was more certain than he was about what happened. But one of the details that he was most confident of was how long it took him to get to the door. And yet this time seems impossible to the jurors. Does this undermine the old man's testimony? He must have been lying or misremembering when stating the amount of time it took him to get to the door, and, therefore, he could be lying about or misremembering other details. This shred of doubt makes the jurors less certain about all of the old man's testimony. 

Three, in this passage, is quick to say that the details of the testimony shouldn't matter. Of course, he says, the old man got the time wrong. He's a confused old man. As he speaks these words, however, he realizes that they undermine his agenda by negating all of the old man's testimony. An error in the testimony shouldn't be explained away by stating that an old man was bound to make mistakes, so this one should be overlooked. This implies that anything else in the testimony could also be a mistake. The use of the word "positive" in Three's statement incorporates the idea of "certainty." It seems the old man couldn't be certain, which calls his testimony into reasonable doubt--the exact thing Three is stubbornly trying to avoid.

Act 3 Quotes

Five: …Anyone who’s ever used a switch knife would never have stabbed downward. You don’t handle a switch knife that way. You use it underhanded. [Illustrates.]
Eight: Then he couldn’t have made the kind of wound that killed his father.
Five: I suppose it’s conceivable that he could have made the wound, but it’s not likely, not if he had any experience with switch knives, and we know that the kid had a lot of experience with switch knives.

Related Characters: Five (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid, Murdered father
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Five's experience living in an impoverished community where violence among his neighbors was commonplace turns out to provide key information in the case. Because he has seen switch knives used before, Five is able to demonstrate that they are used underhand rather than overhand. Three tried to demonstrate that the shorter son made a wound on his taller father by stabbing downward with an overhand stroke. Five says that the accused kid could have handled the knife in this way, and could have made the stab wound, but it seems unlikely that he would have done it in this way, given his previous experience with handling such a knife. 

This discrepancy between the way the wound was made and the way an experienced knife handler would have made the wound introduces reasonable doubt of the assumption that the kid stabbed his father. Why would he have done something out of character and incommensurate with his experience? This seems unlikely. The language Five uses highlights the ideas of certainty and doubt. Eight says that the accused kid couldn't have made this wound. Five corrects him, saying, "it's conceivable that he could have made the wound, but it's not likely." Reasonable doubt does not require that the jury be sure the kid didn't make the wound. But it does require that they have good reason to suspect he might not have made it. This is what Five provides with his analysis of how the switch knife is held.

Three: …You made all the arguments. You can’t turn now. A guilty man’s going to be walking the streets. A murderer! He’s got to die! Stay with me!...

Four: I’m sorry. I’m convinced. I don’t think I’m wrong often, but I guess I was this once. There is a reasonable doubt in my mind.

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Four (speaker), Accused kid
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Juror Four maintains his rational thinking throughout the play. He switches sides with grace once he feels that "there is a reasonable doubt in my mind." In his measured thinking and unbiased rationality, Four embodies a sort of "ideal juror." He holds onto the ideal of the justice system--that reasonable doubt results in a "not guilty" verdict--and he isn't swayed by passion or stubbornness, but by measured persuasion. He exhibits strength in this passage by publicly admitting he was wrong. This shows the contrast between him and Three, who stubbornly sticks to his viewpoint. Four demonstrates that stubbornness is not the same thing as taking a righteous stand, and that gracefully yielding is more valuable than being stubborn in the face of reason. 

Three is stubborn, but he is also certain of the kid's guilt, as if blind to the rational arguments made by others. He is horrified by the thought of a murderer walking the streets free. He feels certain that the kid must die to pay for his crime. Three sees Four's rational arguments against the kid (and his initial "guilty" vote) as evidence that Four was on his side, rather than as examples of Four's rational thinking. It is difficult for Three to imagine being convinced by evidence when, throughout the play, it is clear that he makes his judgements through gut instinct, as he did when he stated that anyone "could see" that the kid was a murderer, just by looking at him. 

Eight: [to Three] They’re waiting. [Three sees that he is alone. He moves to table and pulls switch knife out of table and walks over to Eight with it. Three is holding knife in approved knife-fighter fashion. Three looks long and hard at juror Eight and weaves a bit from side to side as he holds knife with point of it in direction of Eight’s belly. Eight speaks quietly, firmly.] Not guilty. [Three turns knife around and Eight takes it by handle. Eight closes knife and puts it away.]

Three: Not guilty!

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid
Related Symbols: Switch knife
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

This poignant final confrontation between Three and Eight ends the play with all the jurors unanimously agreeing that the accused kid is "not guilty." This scene moves the struggle from one of logic, prejudice, and words to a struggle that is nonverbal and even potentially violent. Throughout this play, the jurors have used their words to persuade each other. In some cases, this has meant using logic and precision, and in other cases this has meant using personal experience, passion, or emotion. Justice has been sought despite the flaws of prejudice and hatred, despite the biases of the diverse jury. But in this scene it seems that the struggle has shifted from a struggle between "guilty" and "not guilty" to a personal struggle between Three and Eight. 

Eight says "not guilty" and Three repeats the words after him, surrendering the knife in the same moment. This action symbolizes Three's surrender. Eight's way of persuading Three in this passage is mostly nonverbal. He seems more powerful than Three because he does not seem afraid, even though Three is threatening him with a knife. Three, on the other hand, notes that "he is alone" and seems cowed by this. Three does not take a stand, as Eight did, but surrenders when he is the only juror on one side of the equation. Even though Eight has achieved a great feat by convincing eleven jurors to switch to his side, the strength of Eight's character calls the process of justice into question. Eight is smart, persuasive, courageous, and powerful (more powerful than Three in this passage), and it seems these things, more so than the truth of the kid's situation, have resulted in the conclusion of this play and the justice that is served.