The process of a trial by a jury of one’s peers is often considered to be both a reflection and core practice of American democratic society. This play runs with that idea, using the jury itself—as a group and as individuals—to reflect both the things that may unite Americans and their differences in background, prejudices, daily concerns, and ideals. The characters are a cross-section of professions, classes, ages, and immigrant status, whose differences inform how they work with each other and their gut reactions to the murder case at issue. As the trial continues, Juror Eight feels sympathy—maybe too much—for the boy on trial because the slums are a tough place to grow up, while Juror Five relates to the boy because he has a boy like him, and Juror Eleven relates the boy’s experiences to what it was like for him growing up in Europe. Meanwhile, Juror Ten holds a virulent prejudice against people like “them” who grew up poor and as a minority (this last is only implied). Significantly, it is the “outsiders”—Juror Eleven, who is an immigrant, and Juror Nine, who is an elderly man—who most believe in the American justice system and want to ensure a fair trial.
When all the jurors’ ideals and backgrounds come in close contact in the closed jury room, social differences become personal arguments and attacks. Slowly, though, as the jurors are forced to sift through the evidence after Juror Eight alone votes “not guilty” in the initial vote, they become more willing to hear each other out and look past appearances. Now the men are trying to work together within the American jury system, with the notable exception of the extremely stubborn Juror Three. Though portraying, literally, just a jury hashing out a case, the play could also be said to show the men hashing out their identities as Americans with ambivalent feelings about the jury process, and by extension, their roles as American citizens.
It is notable that the play is not trying to portray American society at one particular time, such as when it was first staged in 1964. It also leaves the particular identities of the characters ambiguous, encouraging the audience to think beyond their preconceptions or knowledge of particular races and cultures. Instead, the stage directions and setup encourage a sense of timelessness and universal applicability: the setting of the play is described simply as “the present”, and the characters are not given names or characteristics that would date them. Instead of detailed descriptions of, say, ethnicity or class, the characters are given general descriptions, each more like a character type, some based on social status and others simply on personality. For example, Juror Four “seems to be a man of wealth and position” and Juror Five is “naïve.” In this way, the play attempts to portray what it sees as the universal conflicts and currents that drive American society, and the way those conflicts and currents can, at times, produce an American society that is both messy (after all, the definite guilt or innocence of the accused is never established) but also founded on common ideals of justice, freedom, and citizens’ responsibility.
Reflection of American Society ThemeTracker
Reflection of American Society Quotes in Twelve Angry Men
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.
Five: I've lived in a slum all my life.
Ten: Oh, now wait a second!
Five: I used to play in a back yard that was filled with garbage. Maybe it still smells on me.
Foreman: Now let's be reasonable. There's nothing personal.
[Five stands up.]
Five: There is something personal!
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.
Nine: [Pointing at Eight] This gentleman chose to stand alone against us. That's his right. It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone even if you believe in something very strongly. He left the verdict up to us. He gambled for support, and I gave it to him. I want to hear more. The vote is ten to two.
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?
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.
Eleven: I beg your pardon, but maybe you don’t understand the term, “reasonable doubt.”
Seven: [angrily] What do you mean, I don’t understand it? Who do you think you are to talk to me like that? [To all] How do you like this guy? He comes over here running for his life, and before he can even take a big breath he’s telling us how to run the show. The arrogance of him!
Four: No one here is asking where anyone came from.
Seven: I was born right here.
Four: Or where your father came from. [Looks at Seven, who looks away.]
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.
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!