An Analysis of 12 Angry Men
How it works
A classic jury-room drama, “12 Angry Men” follows a jury’s decision-making process in a murder trial, tracking the gradual changing of 11 of the 12 jurors’ minds about the verdict.
“12 Angry Men” is set in New York in 1957 and the entire action of the play takes place in one afternoon and evening in the jury room of a court of law. The two single-scene acts cover exactly the period of time of the jurors’ discussion. The action is continuous, with no change of location, which contributes to the play’s overwhelming sense of emotional tension and claustrophobia.
The “12 Angry Men” of the title are the 12 men of the jury. They are identified in the script only by jury numbers and foreman, and there is no evidence that they know each other’s names. This is indicative of the play’s focus on the case and its broader ethical questions, rather than personal details of individual characters’ lives. When details do emerge, they are only ever discussed with reference to their influence on a particular juror’s vote. The only other character who appears in the play is a guard who serves only a perfunctory and practical purpose. Notably, the defendant, victims, lawyers, and witnesses in the trial are never named.
The play begins at the conclusion of the court’s exposition of the case when they must retire to the jury room and decide on a verdict. The opening lines are the judge’s offstage voiceover reminding the jury of their duty and, at the same time, furnishing the audience with the background details of the trial, including the fact that the jury must reach a unanimous verdict.
We are introduced to the facts of the case as further details emerge gradually when the jury agrees to a preliminary and informal vote. Eleven of the 12 jurors are convinced that the defendant, a young boy from an underprivileged socio-economic background, is guilty of fatally stabbing his father.
In this first vote, one juror stands alone. He maintains that he is uncertain and, therefore, the verdict must be not guilty. This decision introduces an important legal concept to be examined over the course of the play: for the jury to convict the accused, they must be confident, beyond reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty. While this juror does not yet suggest that the defendant is innocent, he feels that there is reasonable doubt about whether the boy really committed the crime, and is therefore compelled to vote not guilty.
As the play progresses, they regularly call for informal votes, both secret and public, to see where opinion stands. With each vote, jurors become less certain, swayed by arguments and questions presented first by this juror and later by others too. By the end of the first act, after three votes, two jurors have changed their minds so that the vote stands at 9-3, still in favor of convicting the defendant. The juror who initially dissented is gently persuasive in the face of anger, frustration, skepticism, and challenge from other jurors, particularly the 3rd and 10th. Tension and conflict increase as jurors begin to question their own beliefs and change their votes.
Details of the trial emerge in the course of the deliberations, helping us understand the jurors’ initial guilty votes. But as witnesses and witness statements are questioned, the audience, like the jurors, is left unsure.
The sale is increasingly open to doubt. For example, in the first act, a juror produces a switchblade identical to the one presented as evidence in court. The prosecutors had argued convincingly for the uniqueness of this particular weapon, but the juror’s ability to produce an identical weapon erodes the others’ confidence that the evidence proves the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
To change their votes to ‘not guilty’, the juror must only introduce reasonable doubt into the other jurors’ deliberations; he need not demonstrate the defendant’s innocence. This makes his task easier, and he proceeds to provoke doubt amongst his fellow jurors, slowly and patiently questioning a series of arguments, statements, and pieces of evidence from the trial. Several other jurors also begin to question the previously accepted facts until near the end of the second act where they changed their vote, and now only three jurors (3rd, 4th, and 10th) remain convinced of the defendant’s guilt.
At the height of the conflict, the 10th, 4th, and finally 3rd jurors change their minds. The denouement of the play is swift and tidy as the jurors reach a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty’ before making their exit to deliver their verdict to the court.