At the onset of the play, we learn from the Judge's offstage opening instructions the given circumstances of the play, that a man has been accused of murder and his fate is to be determined by these jurors. Immediately, we are launched into a world where the ultimate objective is to complete the "grave responsibility" of determining a man's innocence and guilt, the heart of the American justice system.
Throughout the play, we see two opposing views of justice. From 8th Juror and others, as they join, we see a perspective of justice that favors the accused and that wants most for him to have a fair shot. To 8th Juror, the boy's poor and troubled upbringing, his shoddy state-appointed defense attorney, and the jury's quick near-decisive decision to convict him are all gross forms of injustice.
Conversely, we see another side of justice proposed by the other members of the jury, who feel that the accused is clearly guilty, and anything other than conviction and execution is short of justice. 6th Juror articulates this most clearly, saying, "Suppose you talk us outta this and the kid really did knife his father?" This type of justice depends on retribution and vengeance. Rose plays off the two-sided nature of justice to create tension and contrast the characters. Each character wants "justice," but what justice becomes unclear and fluid throughout the course of the play.
Prejudice is observed on several levels throughout the course of the play. In the most obvious sense, the play deals with racial prejudice. While, conspicuously, the race of the accused is never certain, we do understand that he is a minority of some sort (in the 1957 film, the actor playing the accused was Italian), and this quickly becomes a heated issue among the jurors, especially for 9th Juror, who refers to the accused as "one of them."
Looking at prejudice in a larger sense, we find that, while maybe not racially driven, many of the jurors enter the jury room with preconceived notions and irrational ideas. 3rd Juror seems to be prejudiced against the accused simply because of his age, which seems to remind him of his estranged son. An interesting example of "reverse prejudice" is 8th Juror, who is initially sympathetic to the accused, not because of the evidence, but because he pitied his poor and troubled upbringing.
What's really interesting about the case within 12 Angry Men is that we never ultimately find out for sure whether the accused is guilty or innocent. While much of the evidence is aptly questioned and manipulated by 8th Juror, at the end of the case there remains a tremendous amount of evidence built up against the accused. Still, it is "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the jurors must find the accused guilty in order to convict him, and they all ultimately come to the conclusion that they have at least some doubt. We leave the play with a sense that justice and right has prevailed over irrationality and prejudice, but, pointedly so, we never actually find out the truth. This doubt over who is on the "right" side pervades the psychologies of the characters in the play and any audience watching.
One Against Many
The action of the play begins as 8th Juror votes 'not guilty' against 11 votes of 'guilty,' from the other jurors. This creates an immediate antagonism from the other jurors (10th Juror shouts, "Boy-oh-boy! There's always one"), and we quickly find that the task of our protagonist is to convince these eleven other jurors, which he slowly but surely does. This is framed as an act of bravery, standing up against the group to do what's right.
However, at the end of the play, there is a chilling reversal, as all of the jurors switch their vote to "not guilty," except for 3rd Juror, at which point 8th Juror points out, "It's eleven to one...you're alone." This moment is pointedly characterized contrarily as one stubborn man, refusing to come over to the side of reason. Rose contrasts these moments to provide a strong point of view for the play, as well as characterizing the two Jurors.
The play proudly presents a tremendous cross-section of American life. The play juxtaposes a presumably wealthy stock broker (4th Juror) with someone who has admittedly lived in the slums his entire life (5th Juror), and we seem to have every level of working man in between. For many of the jurors, we have no more information than their occupation, which gives us an idea of socioeconomic level. These people are defined by what they do for a living. 7th Juror is even so tactless as to report his income of $28000, from selling marmalade, to the group.
Similarly, the idea of class in American society is brought to the forefront in the deliberation. 8th Juror immediately cites the boy's poor upbringing as a possible explanation for his juvenile criminal record and suggests that he has not been given adequate representation, due to his low social status. It calls into immediate question whether the American justice system is fair across classes.
It is very important to note that the defendant was accused of murdering his father. This relationship becomes very important in how 3rd Juror and 8th Juror understand the accused. Both identify over the play as fathers. 8th Juror exemplifies a somewhat paternal relationship with the accused, even though he doesn't know him and they are never seen together. He stands up for him in a very paternal way and empathizes with the plight of his life.
Conversely, 8th Juror projects onto the accused his relationship with his own son, from whom he has been estranged for two years. The result is that 3rd Juror is immediately prejudiced against him. This play is in many ways a multi-generational play, featuring men of many different age groups; this coupled with the fact that the play is all-male definitely embeds the patriarchy of the times as well.
No names whatsoever and almost no specifics are used throughout the play. The jurors are simply referred to as a number, and the defendant is referred to as "defendant," "accused," "boy," etc. Even the witnesses are, "the downstairs neighbor," "the old man," etc. Ignoring the opening stage directions, there are no indications of time and place, except that it is summer and the fact that the play is all men - which does date it, but even that can (and has frequently) been changed in production.
The effect is that the play is not fixed. It could be the jury room of your trial or your neighbor's. It could be New York. It could be Wisconsin. The characters are less specific individuals and more of a general representation of the American population. These are everyday people that could very well be on your jury. This sense of anonymity raises the stakes of the play as a social drama, in that is a more general commentary on the American legal system.
12 Angry Men Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for 12 Angry Men is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.