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.
Justice Theme Icon

As a play portraying the deliberations of a jury in a murder trial, Twelve Angry Men is naturally concerned with the idea of justice. Yet the play does not represent either the American criminal justice system or the abstract concept of justice as simple or clear. A simple representation of the criminal justice system might be named Twelve Serious Men, and portray those men as diligently, rationally, and single-mindedly going through the evidence until they uncover the facts that reveal what actually happened between the son and his father on the night of the murder. Twelve Angry Men is not that play. Instead, from its opening moments, it shows how both the juror’s motivations and their conceptions of justice are influenced, not entirely rationally or even consciously, by their personalities and experiences. The men are anything but dispassionate when the deliberation process reveals their irrationalities and biases and makes them confront them.

To start with, each juror has a different take on his civic duty: some cherish it in the abstract as an American ideal, some are attached to it because of their personal experience of injustice, and many just want to come to a verdict so that they can get home fast. Juror Eight’s insistence on the jury’s right and duty to investigate the evidence might seem at first like a rational, principled insistence on justice and due process, yet it is founded on his gut sympathy for the teenage defendant. Had he not felt such sympathy, he might not have held out, which shows that people can be prejudiced in their insistence on lack of prejudice too. Other jurors, in contrast, initially vote guilty based on their personal experiences or prejudices, such as Juror Three’s estrangement from his own son. Some jurors just want to avoid this whole annoying process. As one juror puts it before the first vote: “who knows, maybe we can all go home”.

After Juror Eight forces the jury to look through the evidence, even jurors who wanted to finish the case right away soon get caught up in the process. And as they weigh the “objective” evidence, and argue back and forth—with their personal ideas, values, and prejudices all on display in their arguments, even as they are now intent on doing their civic duty—juror after juror changes their vote from guilty to not guilty, until the case is decided. Yet, though they have now carried out the jury deliberation thoroughly and with the great responsibility the Judge impressed on them, and a “not guilty” verdict has been reached, the play’s conception of justice remains complicated. While the jury has voted not guilty, they have done so not on the basis of having definitely proved the defendant’s innocence, but rather because the case against the boy was not beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the play portrays absolute justice as something that is beyond the reach of any jury. All that can be achieved is the justice of “reasonable doubt” defined by the legal system, a definition of justice that is both less satisfying and more realistic. This definition of justice allows for, and makes compromises because of, the types of fallibility and irrationality that were evident in both the jurors and the witnesses in the trial. Since many jurors were, in the end, trying their hardest to figure out what happened, the play also confronts us with the possibility that there is no room for an absolute idea of objective truth in any concept of justice where humans are involved.

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Justice ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Twelve Angry Men related to the theme of Justice.
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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Eight: There were eleven votes for guilty. It's not so easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.

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

The jurors begin their deliberations by taking a vote to see where they stand. In this vote, eleven men vote "guilty" and one votes "not-guilty." Eight's logic, as he states it initially, points out the rashness of the proceedings. These men are ready to let a kid accused of murder suffer the greatest punishment possible without thorough deliberation. Although it becomes clear that Eight has thought rationally about the details of the case, his initial "not-guilty" vote is based on a simple ideal of the American legal system. A twelve person jury is intended to be diverse, so that a case can be thoroughly discussed, prejudices countered, and a better decision reached than any one man might make alone. This requires discussion and debate. 

Despite its initial appearance of uniformity, this jury is actually quite diverse (as much as possible in a group of only men), with a variety of conflicting opinions that come to light when they take the time to discuss them. The legal system is designed to move the reality of humanity (which is messy with prejudices, boredom, and emotions) to a more perfect state in which justice can be served. Getting twelve men to agree is more likely to achieve justice than following the will of any one man. This is not always the case, but Eight reminds the others of the ideal of justice that they should strive toward. He takes a stand in this scene by casting the one dissenting vote. This action is heroic because he is upholding the higher values of justice rather than serving his own interests. 

Ten: I don't mind telling you this, mister. We don't owe the kid a thing. He got a fair trial, didn't he? You know what that trial cost? He's lucky he got it. Look, we're all grownups here. You're not going to tell us that we're supposed to believe him, knowing what he is. I've lived among 'em all my life. You can't believe a word they say. You know that.

Related Characters: Ten (speaker), Eight, Accused kid
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Ten presents a counter-point to Eight's sympathy for the accused kid. Just as Eight is more inclined to give time, consideration, and understanding to the kid because of his circumstances, Ten is less inclined to give these things. He sees the kid as representative of a group that he dislikes and distrusts. His prejudice against "them" leads him to conclude that "you can't believe a word they say." Who the "they" are exactly is unclear, but the ambiguity contributes to the timelessness and universality of the play. If this play was staged in a certain city at a certain time period, the audience might automatically assume the kid belongs to a group they know to be poor and unprivileged. In a different city, at a different time period, the audience might instinctively assign the kid to a different group. There have always been groups that are judged and discriminated against by the majority and the kid could belong to any of these. 

Interestingly, Ten says that he lived among this group all his life, yet he doesn't identify as one of them. Does Ten's personal exposure to this group lead to his particular vitriol against them? Or is this an exaggeration to explain why he feels justified making such claims? Perhaps suffering at the hands of specific people in Ten's life have made him the way that he is. Whatever the reason for his prejudice, it is clear that Ten's understanding of justice for the kid is different than Eight's. 

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. 

Eight: I've got a proposition to make. I want to call for a vote. I want eleven men to vote by secret ballot. I'll abstain. If there are still eleven votes for guilty, I won't stand alone. We'll take in a guilty verdict right now.

Related Characters: Eight (speaker)
Related Symbols: Secret ballot
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Eight responds to Seven's concerns that he is holding out stubbornly against a majority that disagrees with him by proposing a vote by secret ballot. This gesture shows that Eight is trying to balance stubbornness and taking a stand. If everyone else strongly feels it is time to make a decision for "guilty," he won't prevent this. He is willing to surrender gracefully, unlike Three at the end of the play. This move is risky in terms of Eight's agenda, which is to consider the reasons for reasonable doubt that he has sensed exist in the case. The other men might very easily have stuck with their first decision and proclaimed the accused kid "guilty." In fact, we see that only one man changes his mind even after this next vote. 

Eight's call for the vote by secret ballot is a key moment in the play. When voting by secret ballot, the men are free to make their decision in isolation, without the influence and pressure of others. Certain jurors have already made it clear that they strongly dislike the accused kid or that they're impatient to go home. Eight has already taken abuse and frustration directed at him for delaying the proceedings. It would be difficult to stand up for what's right in this type of environment, in the face of this pressure from other men. Therefore, by voting by secret ballot, the men reach a more "pure" form of justice, "pure" because their decision is based on rational thought without peer pressure. 

Act 2 Quotes

Eleven: Please. I would like to say something here. I have always thought that a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions in this country. This is the reason I came here. I wanted to have the right to disagree. In my own country, I am ashamed to say that.

Related Characters: Eleven (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The vote of a single "not guilty," even though Eight has abstained, causes a strong backlash. Some jurors angrily express a desire to know who changed his vote. Eleven points out the problem with this: each person should be entitled to vote as he wills, even if that vote is unpopular. This is another ideal tenant of justice which is, clearly, not always perfectly fulfilled in practice. Eleven cites the founding American principle of free speech. The protection of free speech is all the more necessary and valuable when the speech being protected is unpopular. 

Eleven is an immigrant, which is another example of the jury's diversity and another source of tension among the jurors who don't all accept Eleven in a way that's free from prejudice. As an immigrant, he has a unique understanding of American society and the American legal system. Unlike the other jurors, who might take their free speech and their right to dissent for granted, Eleven sees this as a strong point of American justice. In his home country, he didn't have the right to disagree, and freedom of speech is one important reason he came to America. Although this is an American ideal, it is easily forgotten in daily life. Eleven's "outsider" perspective remembers and prioritizes this ideal, while the other jurors are caught up in their emotional reactions to the proceedings in the jury room. 

Eight: You want to see this boy die because you personally want it—not because of the facts.

Three: Shut up!

[He lunges at Eight, but is caught by two of the jurors and held. He struggles as Eight watches calmly.]

Three: Let me go. I'll kill him. I’ll kill him!

Eight: You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?

Related Characters: Three (speaker), Eight (speaker), Accused kid
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Eight argues that the kid's overhead yell of "I'll kill you" should not be treated as evidence of intention. Many people would say such a thing in an impassioned moment and not follow through with it, or even actually mean it. This is a (relatively) common phrase expressing anger, and should not be treated as a statement of intent or premeditation. Minutes later, the tension between Eight and Three rises to a fevered pitch, as Eight accuses Three of arguing for the accused kid to die because he "personally wants it." This conclusion shows the difference between ideal justice and reality. Eight is pointing out that Three is motivated by personal judgements. He is not operating as an unbiased judge of the situation. 

This accusation angers Three, who is always quick to respond emotionally. His anger seems to derive from the fact that Eight would make such a bold and offensive claim implying that Three wants someone to die. Three's anger and following comments hurt his reputation far more than Eight's accusation, however, because he seems to confirm his own hotheadedness, while also proving Eight's point from earlier. He yells that he'll kill Eight, because he's angry that Eight would accuse him of wanting someone dead, which is a very ironic twist. Eight's reply points almost too neatly to their earlier conversation. Does Three really mean this, or is he speaking in the heat of passion? And if he doesn't really mean it, why couldn't the same have been true of the accused kid's circumstances?

Act 3 Quotes

Eleven: We have a responsibility. This is a remarkable thing about democracy. That we are...ummmm... what is the word...Ah, notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong. We should not make it a personal thing.

Related Characters: Eleven (speaker)
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

Juror Eleven, the immigrant, continues to hold onto and remind others of the ideals of justice and the way the American legal system has been designed to uphold these ideals. One aspect of this design that is effective, Eleven feels, is that the jurors have never met the accused before and so have no reason to be swayed in one way or another. He says that they have "nothing to gain or lose," and that this lack of bias makes them strong. This is, of course, an idealization of the process of trial-by-jury that has already been undercut by the actions of the play itself. Eleven believes that the jury should be impartial, and yet it is clear that the jury members have a variety of prejudices reflective of the diverse perspectives of American society. Eleven thinks that only knowing the accused would lead them to be impartial when, in fact, the jurors' own personal experiences have biased them before they ever saw the accused kid or heard about the case. 

The final line of this passage shows that Eleven is aware of his statements about justice as an ideal. He says that the jurors "should not make it a personal thing." He has earlier highlighted their responsibility as selected jurors to fulfill their duty well. The word "should" in his statement shows that he sees this as an ideal that the jurors are striving toward, not reaching. They "should" be acting without bias, but they're not. 

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.