Excerpt From this Document
A dramatic two-act play originally written for live television in 1954, Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men takes us into the jury room as twelve men deliberate to reach a verdict in a capital murder trial. Through the tense and often combative proceedings inside the room, the characters of the jury members are revealed and disturbing questions about the American system of justice are raised. The defendant is a sixteen-year-old boy accused of killing his father. Although the boy’s race is never identified explicitly, it is clear that he is a member of a racial minority. Initially, the jury quickly votes, almost unanimously, that he is guilty. A single juror, however, is not convinced of the boy’s guilt; moreover, he is deeply troubled by the others’ rush to judgment. Calmly pointing out the various questions he feels were not satisfactorily resolved during the trial, he motivates members of the jury to meet their responsibilities by actually examining the evidence offered to convict the defendant. As the men discuss the evidence, their various prejudices and internal conflicts are exposed, and we see that supposedly objective facts are often colored by personal attitudes and experiences. Gradually, one by one, members of the jury change their votes as they consider the evidence. Finally, even the most adamant among them concedes that the boy’s guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The jury’s final verdict—not guilty—represents the triumph of justice over the injustice that results in the American legal system when citizens do not protect the principles upon which it is founded.
The play not only sheds light on the various strengths and weaknesses of American trial by jury but also serves as an allegory for a nation struggling with its long and entrenched history of prejudice and racial injustice. As the jurors—meant to represent a cross-section of the country as a whole—consider the evidence before them, their prejudices, class differences, and personal assumptions are exposed and challenged. At the time Twelve Angry Men was televised, the United States was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement and was being forced to reassess whether America was truly the paragon of democratic virtue it claimed to be and to confront elements in American society that undermined the principle of equal justice under law. Rose makes clear that prejudice is a poisonous seed; allowed to flourish, it will destroy the entire system of American justice.
Although some aspects of the play are dated—a jury today would no longer consist of twelve white men—many of the subjects it raises are timeless: the different kinds of prejudice; the importance of social responsibility; the elusive, confusing nature of truth; the notion of reasonable doubt; and the value of reason and logic. The play also raises important questions about the fair administration of justice, and perhaps most importantly, about the fitness of ordinary individuals to judge their peers. Although Rose exposes the ugliness of prejudice and the flaws in our legal system, his message is ultimately a positive one: When we honor our civic responsibility to the country and to one another as human beings, justice can—and will—prevail.
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eNotes lesson plans have been written, tested, and approved by working classroom teachers. The main components of each plan are the following:
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Chapter-by-chapter study questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions
Each plan is divided into a teacher and a student edition. The teacher edition provides complete answer keys.