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.
Note 1: Students undoubtedly will wonder why the jury is composed entirely of white men. Although some states began earlier to give women the right to serve on juries, women were only officially given the right to serve on federal juries after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and it wasn’t until 1973 that women could serve on juries in all fifty states. Only in 1975 did the Supreme Court finally rule that excluding women from a jury pool violated a person’s right to a fair trial. Minorities also had to fight for the right to serve on juries. Finally, in 1979, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that race and gender could not be used to strike potential jurors.
Note 2: There are several versions of the play in existence today. A year after it originally aired on television, Rose wrote a new version of the play for print publication (the version on which this lesson guide is based). Two years later, in 1957, he wrote the screenplay for a film adaptation. The film, starring Henry Fonda, was highly successful and nominated for several Academy Awards.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the principles of “reasonable doubt” and “innocent until proven guilty” in the context of the play.
2. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the American jury system that the play exposes.
3. Identify the different types of persuasion—both emotional and rational—employed by the various jurors and explain which proves to be most effective and why it is most convincing.
4. Explain what Juror #8 means in observing, “prejudice obscures the truth,” and discuss whether or not total impartiality is possible.
5. Describe how the play is an allegory for the country at the time it was written.
6. Describe the importance of social responsibility in the context of the play and the problems that result from putting individual needs ahead of obligations to society.
7. Explain the role of doubt, for both the jurors in the play and the audience watching it.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
• The Lesson Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. (Act I is addressed in two parts.) Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act to cquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Lesson Guide vocabulary lists include words from the play that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Lesson Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each act that are most appropriate
Essay and Discussion Questions
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the play; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the play.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Before students read through the play, point out these themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in the play:
- The jury system
- “Reasonable doubt”
- Reason vs. emotion
- The nature of truth
- Social responsibility
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in literature. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author develops the following symbols and have them look for other symbols on their own:
- The jury itself
1. Juror #11 remarks in Act One: “Facts may be colored by the personalities of the people who present them.” Does this occur in the play? Please provide examples to support your answer.
2. Which jurors are swayed by their emotions? Which are more guided by reason?
3. Why did the playwright choose not to give the audience a definitive answer regarding the boy’s innocence or guilt? How does the lingering doubt about the truth affect the audience’s experience of the play?
4. Which characters take their role as jurors seriously? Which ones do not? What is the playwright’s message about social responsibility?
5. Why do you think the playwright chose not to give the jurors or any of the other characters specific names?
6. What strengths and weaknesses of the jury system does the play bring to light? What do you think the playwright’s opinion about the system is?
7. What is the role of racial prejudice in the play? What statement do you think the playwright wanted to make about prejudice in society?
8. Besides racial prejudice, what other forms of prejudice can you identify in the play? Are the jurors biased against each other? If so, in what way?
9. What is the role of social class in the play? Which jurors seem to belong to which social classes? How can you tell?
10. In what way is the changing weather a metaphor for the emotional trajectory of the play?
11. How can you tell that Juror #3’s feelings about the case are deeply influenced by his relationship with his son?
12. In what way is the play dated? What elements of it are timeless?
13. What is the task of the jurors? In the justice system, what is the meaning and significance of the concept of reasonable doubt?
14. How is the play an allegory?
abstain: to refrain, to hold back
alleged: supposed, not established in fact
assault: an attack
circumstantial: related, secondary, or indirect (as in evidence); not actual proof
conscience: a sense of consciousness or awareness of one’s own moral goodness
coroner: the public official assigned to investigate any death not resulting from natural causes
counsel: a lawyer
customary: commonly practiced, habitual
diverge: to deviate, to move in a different direction
forgery: a fake representation, such as the falsification of a signature or document
mandatory: required, binding
menaces: threats, dangers
(The entire section is 1880 words.)
avenger: one who inflicts revenge or punishment
bookmaker: a person who determines odds and receives and pays off bets
distort: to contort or deform, to twist out of true meaning or proportion
executioner: one who puts a condemned person to death
precede: to exist or happen before
recede: to retreat, to withdraw
sadist: one who derives pleasure from inflicting pain
sanctimonious: expressive of moral superiority; hypocritically righteous
1. How is the second vote conducted differently from the first, and what is the outcome? What does the second vote indicate, and why is it important?
(The entire section is 1237 words.)
acquittal: a judgment that a person is not guilty of a crime; exoneration; release
alibi: a claim or piece of evidence to support that someone was elsewhere when a particular crime was being committed
gall: boldness, outrageous insolence
infallible: unerring; incapable of failing
paranoid: being irrationally distrustful or fearful of others
prosecution: the party by whom criminal proceedings are instituted or conducted
1. How does the jury’s attitude toward Juror #3 seem to be changing?
The rest of the jury is embarrassed for Juror #3. His outburst is undermining his credibility and casting his opinions in a less than reliable light. It...
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1. What is the task of the jurors?
A. To prove that the defendant killed his father.
B. To decide whether there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed his father.
C. To prove the defendant’s innocence.
D. To decide whether the judge has given the defendant a fair trial.
E. To decide whether the defendant should go to prison or get the death penalty.
2. What will become of the defendant if the jury determines that he is guilty?
A. He will go to prison for twenty years.
B. He will be sent to juvenile prison....
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1. Describe the strengths and the weaknesses of the jury system that are revealed in Twelve Angry Men. Also, does the playwright seem to accept or reject the idea that a jury safeguards justice? Support your discussion with examples from the play.
Rose is well aware of the weaknesses in the jury system. In his play, he reveals at once how the jury system could fail in its mission of dispensing justice. When the first vote is taken, all the jurors except one have formed a judgment before even discussing the evidence; the defendant is precariously close to being sent off to die. Only Juror #8 says that “it’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”...
(The entire section is 2703 words.)