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"Twelve Angry Men" Study Guide: Plot Summary and Study Questions

AKA: Twelve Angry Jurors

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Plot Summary:

In the play, Twelve Angry Men/Jurors, a jury must decide whether or not to reach a guilty verdict and sentence the 19 year old defendant to death. At the beginning of the play, eleven jurors vote "guilty." Only one man, Juror #8, believes that the young man might be innocent. He must convince the others that "reasonable doubt" exists. One by one, the jury is persuaded to agree with Juror #8.

Learn about each of the characters from Twelve Angry Men.

Production History:

Written by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men was originally presented as a televised play on CBS's Studio One. The teleplay was broadcast in 1954. By 1955, Rose's drama was adapted into a stage play. Since then it has been seen on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and countless regional theaters productions.

In 1957, Henry Fonda starred in the film adaptation (12 Angry Men), directed by Sidney Lumet. In the 1990s version, Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott co-starred in an acclaimed adaptation presented by Showtime. Most recently, Twelve Angry Men was reinvented into a Russian film simply titled 12. (The Russian jurors determine the fate of a Chechen boy, framed for a crime he did not commit).

The play has also been slightly revised as Twelve Angry Jurors in order to accommodate a gender-neutral cast.

What Is "Reasonable Doubt"?

From Charles Montaldo's Crime/Punishment GuideSite, "Reasonable Doubt" is explained thusly:

"That state of minds of jurors in which they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction as to the truth of the charge."

Some audience members walk away from Twelve Angry Men as if a mystery has been solved, as if the defendant is proven 100% innocent. However, Reginald Rose's play intentionally avoids providing easy answers. We are never given proof of the defendant's guilt or innocence. No character rushes into the courtroom to announce, "We found the real killer!" The audience, like the jury in the play, must make up their own minds as to the verdict of the case.

The Prosecution's Case:

At the beginning of the play, eleven of the jurors believe that the boy killed his father. They summarize the compelling evidence of the trial:

  • A 45 year old woman claimed she witnessed the defendant stabbing his father. She watched through her window as the city's commuter train passed by.
  • An old man living downstairs claimed that he heard the boy yell "I'll kill you!" followed by a "thump" on the floor. He then witnessed a young man, supposedly the defendant, running away.
  • Before the murder took place, the defendant purchased a switchblade, the same type that was used in the murder.
  • Presenting a weak alibi, the defendant claimed he was at the movies at the time of the murder. He failed to remember the names of the films.

Finding Reasonable Doubt:

Juror #8 picks apart each piece of evidence to persuade the others. Here are some of the observations:

  • The old man could have invented his story because he craved attention. He also might not have heard the boy's voice while the train was passing by.
  • Although the prosecution stated that the switchblade was rare and unusual, Juror #8 purchased one just like it from a store in the defendant's neighborhood.
  • Some members of the jury decide that during a stressful situation, anyone could forget the names of the movie they had seen.
  • The 45 year old woman had indentations on her nose, indicating that she wore glasses. Because her eyesight is in question, the jury decides that she is not a reliable witness.

Twelve Angry Men in the Classroom:

Reginald Rose's courtroom drama (or should I say jury-room drama?) is an excellent teaching tool. It demonstrates different forms of argument, from calm reasoning, to emotional appeals, to just plain shouting. As a college professor, I have enjoyed watching the film version with my students, and then having a lively discussion.

Here are a few questions to discuss and debate:

  • Which characters base their decisions on prejudice?
  • Does Juror #8, or any other character, exercise "reverse discrimination"?
  • Should this trial have been a hung jury? Why / why not?
  • What are the most persuasive pieces of evidence in favor of the defense? Or the prosecution?
  • Describe the communication style of each juror. Who comes closest to your own style of communication?
  • How would you have voted if you were on the jury?
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