Arkadi calls upon the audience to listen to the story of Azdak the judge and learn “what kind of judge he was.” Arkadi sings that on the Easter Sunday of the revolt against the Grand Duke, Azdak hid a fugitive in his hut in the woods.
Arkadi is setting the audience up to listen to the story of an entirely new character, and to learn how his journey will come to connect him to Grusha’s.
Azdak helps an elderly beggar into his home. He feeds him some cheese, and asks the old man why he was running. The old man says only that he had to. Azdak watches the old man eat, noting that he “lick[s] his chops like a Grand Duke.” Suspicious, Azdak asks the old man to show him the palm of his hand, which he then sees is white and clean. Azdak realizes he has been swindled and tells the old man that he knows he is a landowner, and asks again why he was running.
Azdak is bitterly surprised and indignant to learn that he has been tricked into sheltering and feeding a wealthy fugitive. As the character closest to a stand-in for Brecht himself, Azdak share’s Brecht’s suspicion of the upper class and disdain for the cruelty and corruption of the wealthy and powerful.
The old man tells Azdak that he will pay him a hundred thousand piasters a night to stay hidden in the hut, and that although he does not have the money with him right now, he will ensure Azdak gets it. Azdak refuses the man’s proposition, and tells him to get out. As the old man shuffles over to the door, a voice from outside calls Azdak’s name.
Azdak is not tempted by the corruptive force of money, though the fugitive offers him an enormous sum. (Recall, by comparison, that Grusha could barely afford to buy milk for two piasters.) This immediately establishes him as a character of strong principles.
The old man hides in the corner while Azdak answers the door. A policeman named Shauwa is there, and Azdak asks him what he is doing “sniffling around.” Shauwa accuses Azdak of having caught yet another “rabbit,” and laments the fact that he must now arrest Azdak. One of the Prince’s “rabbits” has been stolen, Shauwa says, and as a policeman, he has no choice but to arrest the “offending party.”
When Shauwa accuses Azdak of catching “rabbits,” he is using a thinly-veiled metaphor to accuse him of sheltering vulnerable yet quick and wily enemies of the new rulers of Grusinia—which Azdak is unknowingly doing by feeding the old man.
Azdak argues with Shauwa, warning him that one day God will pass judgement on him for hunting down men on behalf of the Fat Prince. He urges Shauwa to go home and repent, then closes the door on him. Azdak asks the old man if he is surprised that Azdak didn’t hand him over, and instructs the old man to finish his cheese but to eat it like a poor man. Azdak then realizes he will have to teach the old man how to do so, and talks him step-by-step through how beggars eat food—that is, hungrily and in an unrefined manner.
Azdak has defended the man from the police, even though he knows that the man is a wealthy landowner. Although he seems to have a strong sense of justice, he feels no allegiance to the Fat Prince. The old man, for his part, has evidently never been hungry and therefore must be instructed in the ways in which the poor move through the world, prompting Azdak to realize he is in over his head—deeper than he wants to be.
Azdak wonders aloud if this old man is being hunted for the right reasons, or whether the police are mistaken about him. He concludes that he does not trust the old man, but still he allows him to stay the night. Arkadi intervenes to sing of how Azdak, over the course of the evening, came to realize that the old beggar was in fact “the Grand Duke himself,” and then felt great shame at having hidden him. Azdak immediately turned himself into Shauwa, and asked to be arrested and sent to Nuka to sit trial for sheltering such an evil man.
Azdak is so wary of the corruption of the wealthy and powerful, and so bent on upholding justice, that he turns himself into the police for having committed what he sees as an unforgivable crime, but which was in fact an honest mistake that anyone could have made. Unlike the corrupt people in power, Azdak doesn’t see himself as being above the law, even when he has acted unknowingly.
Azdak arrives in Nuka in chains, shouting aloud about his guilt in having helped the Grand Duke—whom he refers to as “the Grand Thief, the Grand Butcher, the Grand Swindler”—escape justice. Shauwa is not far behind him. Azdak asks to be “severely judged” in a public trial, and denounces himself as a traitor and a criminal.
Azdak is despondent over having played a role in sheltering such a corrupt individual, and truly wants to face judgment and justice in the eyes of the law.
A group of nearby Ironshirts ask Azdak whether his neighbors back in his village judged him for sheltering the Grand Duke. Shauwa answers on Azdak’s behalf, and tells the Ironshirts that everyone back in the village had either comforted Azdak or seemed indifferent. Azdak continues begging the Ironshirts to bring him to trial. The Ironshirts point out a judge, hanging from a gallows in the corner of the square. Azdak asks where all the other town officials have gone, and then realizes that they were all murdered as well, when peasants and commoners in Nuka rioted after realizing that they would fare no better under the Fat Prince’s regime than they had under the Grand Duke’s.
Azdak is so overcome by shame that he is unable to see that his crime—having unwittingly sheltered the Grand Duke—is not as big a deal to anybody else as it is to him. Nobody else’s morals are as stringent, and with all the chaos and upheaval in Nuka, it seems of little consequence whether or not the Grand Duke was able to escape. In this way, Azdak’s behavior reveals him to be one of the few people left with any true sense of justice.
Azdak references a time in Persia when “everybody” was hanged, and peasants and foot soldiers took upon themselves the duties of ruling. When one of the Ironshirts asks why all this happened, Azdak offers to sing a song his grandfather taught him. He begins to sing “The Song of Injustice in Persia,” which speaks of the violence in Persia and also of the peace following the war, during which “those who cannot let down their own trousers rule countries.”
Azdak shows himself to be against not just corruption but violence, as well, cementing his role as a character fixated on the ideals of justice, equality, and peace. Azdak has seen violence many times throughout his life, and laments the endless fighting between corrupt leaders and downtrodden commoners everywhere in the world.
One of the Ironshirts notices that the sky is turning red with fire, and says that on the outskirts of town the people are still revolting. The peasants are the ones who strung up the judge, he says, and the Ironshirts have been offered one hundred piasters for each rebel they kill. The Ironshirts discuss amongst themselves whether Azdak is a troublemaker who has come to the capital to get mixed up in revolt. Shauwa, however, attests to Azdak’s good character, and Azdak himself admits that he does not know any longer why he came to Nuka. One of the Ironshirts asks Azdak if he is still angry with himself for not having killed the Grand Duke, and Azdak confesses that he let the old man run away. Shauwa attests to this fact. The Ironshirts, apparently realizing that Azdak poses no real threat to justice or order, release him from his chains.
As the Fat Prince’s soldiers try to determine whether Azdak poses a threat to order or intends to revolt, Brecht is mirroring his own experience of espousing radical politics within a stifling and dangerous environment. Brecht’s radical politics while he was in exile during the second world war later made him a target for those attempting to snuff out any Marxist or communist political threats in the early days of the cold war. Here, he demonstrates the terrifying and isolating effects of being seen as such a threat.
The Fat Prince enters with a young man at his side, and recounts the details of his coup of Grusinia. It was a success, he says, except for the fact that the Grand Duke escaped, and that a rebellion is simmering on the outskirts of town. The Fat Prince declares that there must be peace and justice, and wants to install his nephew as the new judge. While the Ironshirts confer amongst themselves and discuss the new regime’s hypocrisy and incompetence, the Fat Prince whispers to his nephew that the job will soon be his.
The Fat Prince claims to want peace and justice, but really just wants to use corrupt methods to uphold his own wealth and power—and that of those close to him. He is blind to the fact that his coup has not, in fact, been a success, and that unrest and despair are still gripping the people he should be protecting and prospering.
The Ironshirts ask Azdak if he would like to put his name in the running for the position of judge. Azdak knows that the Ironshirts want to test the Fat Prince’s nephew, and suggests they all hold a mock trial using a criminal from the dungeon—but then he second-guesses his own idea, deciding that it wouldn’t be good to try any real criminals until it’s a sure thing that the presiding judge will be appointed. Azdak reminds the men of the importance of respecting the sanctity of the law, and suggests that he himself serve as the defendant in the mock trial.
Azdak, in this passage, reveals that his respect for the sanctity of morals extend also to the sanctity of the law itself. The audience will watch as Azdak’s faith in the law is tested and, in some ways, overturned over the course of the act, as Azdak realizes that it is not necessarily the law itself that is sacred, but the triumph of justice.
The Fat Prince accepts Azdak’s proposal, but again whispers to his nephew that the proceedings are “a mere formality.” Azdak, pretending to be the Grand Duke, presents himself before the “judge.” He claims that the it was the Princes who forced him to declare war, and then “messed it up” by embezzling money and sending too few soldiers and sick horses into battle. He attempts to call the Fat Prince as a witness, alleging that the Princes did not fight in the war but only acted as warmongers. The Fat Prince protests “the Duke’s” claims and demands he hang. The Ironshirts protest, but the Fat Prince’s nephew, too, issues a verdict of hanging. Azdak argues, continuing to insist that the Princes orchestrated a war in which they would make profit out of loss. The Fat Prince stops Azdak’s mock testimony and orders the Ironshirts to appoint the rightful new judge, assuming they will select his nephew. Instead, the Ironshirts pull the judge’s gown off the hanged man and place it on Azdak’s shoulders.
Azdak, before he has even been appointed as judge, begins exposing the corruption and hypocrisy that have defined both the Grand Duke’s regime as well as the Fat Prince’s. Although the Fat Prince and his nephew attempt to silence Azdak and punish him for his commitment to truth and justice, the Ironshirts actually band together to reward Azdak by appointing him judge. They dress him in the robes of the judge who was strung up by the revolting peasants, symbolizing the hope that Azdak will be the people’s judge, and will not let the commoners down.
Arkadi sings of how Azdak remained the judge for two years, ruling justly as “cockroaches crawled out of every crack” while the war raged on and the court was filled with case after case.
Azdak is appointed judge at a difficult time, but deftly handles the influx of cases and exposes the hypocrisy and corruption of “cockroaches” throughout the land.
Azdak sits in his judge’s chair, peeling an apple. As there are so many cases before him, he announces his plan to hear two cases at a time. The cases he is hearing today involve an invalid bringing a complaint of negligence against his doctor, and a blackmailer who attempted to find out from a landowner whether the landowner had raped his own niece. Azdak hears the citizens’ complaints and defenses, and rules swiftly and decisively but with a sense of humor, essentially blackmailing the blackmailer, and pardoning the doctor even though he has “perpetrated an unpardonable error” by practicing for free.
In this passage, the audience is shown Azdak’s unique approach to administering justice throughout Grusinia. He punishes those who have done wrong, even if they claim they were acting in the name of righteousness, and highlights the ways in which those who have not technically committed a crime or an injustice may nonetheless be shortchanging themselves and those around them.
Azdak travels to the country to hear the case of an innkeeper who wishes to bring action against his a stableman who raped his daughter-in-law while his son was away on business. After hearing the woman’s testimony, Azdak questions her as to whether she enjoys eating sweet things and lazing about in the bathtub. Azdak rules that it is the daughter-in-law who has “raped an unfortunate man”—Azdak tells her she cannot “run around with a behind like that and get away with it in court.”
In another case, the audience sees yet another example of Azdak laying blame where it might not have been seen by a different judge. In this case, however, his verdict is undeniably sexist and misogynistic, blaming a woman for her own rape because of her appearance (though it’s unclear whether Brecht would have intended it to be read that way).
Arkadi and his chorus sing of Azdak’s continuing travels throughout the countryside. He gains renown as “the poor man’s magistrate.” In yet another case, Azdak hears testimony against an old woman who has been accused by three men of stealing a cow and a ham, and of killing her landlord’s cows when he asked her to pay rent on a piece of land. The old woman insists that she was visited by “the miracle-working Saint Banditus,” who gave her the cow as a condolence after her son was killed in the war. When some men tried to steal the cow back, bumps sprouted on their heads, and the old woman began to believe in miracles.
In this third example of Azdak’s unique take on the concept of justice, the audience watches as Azdak is placed in front of a case in which the obvious “guilty” party is a wily bandit who has deceived this old woman into accepting and hiding stolen goods. After seeing the last two cases unfold, though, the audience is probably able to intuit that a greater moral justice is at work in this case, and that the bandit may not be as “guilty” as he seems.
As for the ham, the old woman claims it came flying through her window one night and hit her in the back, and that Saint Banditus told her not to worry about paying her landlord rent—he would take care of it. Meanwhile, a roaming bandit has entered the proceedings to watch what’s going on. The bandit, watching the old woman give her testimony, begins sobbing, afraid he will be caught. However, Azdak sentences the three plaintiffs to pay a fine for not believing in miracles, and invites the old woman and the bandit to join him for a glass of wine.
As Azdak gains a reputation as a friend to the poor and downtrodden, the audience watches him try a case in which he chooses to punish neither the guilty party (the bandit) or the accused (the innocent elderly woman,) knowing that to do so would be to ruin the lives of two poor and desperate individuals. Instead, he charges those who brought the case to court—though they have lost things, they at least had things to lose in the first place, and being fined for “not believing in miracles” will be a punishment they can easily overcome.
Arkadi and his chorus sing of how Azdak “broke the rules” to save the local populace, and gave out “broken law like bread.” He becomes known as a Robin Hood figure, giving “beasts of prey short measure,” and fighting on behalf of the “poor and lowly.”
Azdak doesn’t uphold the rule of law per se, but upholds the sanctity of justice. He is committed to the common people, and as they have likely never had so true an ally, Azdak is celebrated throughout the land.
Arkadi reveals that eventually the Grand Duke returned to Nuka, as did the Governor’s wife, Natella. The Fat Prince was beheaded and deposed, and Azdak became seized by fear. Back in the court of justice in Nuka, Azdak confers with Shauwa while sounds of chaos filter through the chamber from outside. Azdak tells Shauwa that he will soon be free; Azdak has kept Shauwa with him for years, and Shauwa has stayed because it is his “nature” to “lick the hand of some superior being.” Now, Azdak invites Shauwa to join him in singing The Song of Chaos in Egypt in memory of the confusion and disorder of the Fat Prince’s reign. The men sing together of driving out the mighty, restoring the poor, and toppling the social order to benefit the downtrodden.
As the Grand Duke returns to power, Azdak fears he will be strung up or removed from his role as judge, just as the last judge was strung up during the last transfer of power. As Azdak and Shauwa contemplate what will happen to them, they consider the righteousness of their mission, and fear for its futility in the face of a seemingly endless cycle of chaotic upheavals of power.
Azdak calls for Shauwa to bring him his Statute Book, and begins looking through it to find out what punishment he might receive from the reinstated Grand Duke. He laments the fact that he cannot hide, nothing that, since he has helped virtually everybody, everybody knows him.
Azdak turns to his book of statutes to look for an indication of what injustice might befall him, thus symbolically linking the law to unjust violence against the righteous.
Shauwa announces that someone is approaching the chamber. Azdak plans to beg on his knees for mercy, as he is very afraid of death. Natella enters the chamber, flanked by Ironshirts. One soldier informs Azdak that Natella is looking for Michael, who was last seen being carried into the mountains by a servant girl. Azdak assures Natella that he will make sure the child is brought back, and that the servant girl is beheaded. He promises her that he is completely at her service.
Azdak is relieved that his life will be spared, and as the fourth act comes to a close he seems to betray his own commitment to exposing corruption and serving the common people as he agrees to be retained by the corrupt and narcissistic Natella.