Grusha and Michael arrive back in Nuka, but Grusha is kept away from the child as he is led into the palace. There is a “fire-red sky” over the palace. Grusha stands with the former governor’s cook, who tells her that she’s lucky that Azdak is the one trying her case, since he is not a “real judge,” but a drunk who lets even the worst thieves slip by without consequences. The cook asks Grusha why she wants Michael so badly, and Grusha replies that the child is hers since she has raised him. The cook asks what Grusha thought would happen when the governor’s wife returned for the child, and Grusha confesses that she believed that Natella would never find them. The cook tells Grusha that she has wronged Simon, who has also arrived back in Nuka, and who is now approaching Grusha and the cook. Grusha replies that she cannot be bothered with Simon right now.
Grusha, after having sacrificed so much to ensure a quiet life of safety for herself and her child, is thrust into a chaotic and emotional whirlwind as she arrives back in Nuka. Not only is she concerned that her child will be taken from her, but after having been away so long, she has missed all that has happened in Nuka over the last several years and is therefore unaware of Azdak’s infamous role in the city’s justice system. Moreover, Simon is still hot on her tail, desperate for affection and answers.
Simon appears behind Grusha and offers to swear in court that he is the child’s father. Grusha thanks him. Two Ironshirts arrive, asking where the judge is. Apparently, Azdak is not present. The cook says she hopes nothing has happened to Azdak, as Grusha’s case will have very little chance with any other judge.
Brecht highlights the unfairness of the justice system by creating a series of circumstances in which Grusha’s fate relies entirely on who will be judging her case.
Grusha worries aloud that she will run into the Ironshirt she hit over the head. Just at that moment, the Corporal, who has been standing in the background, turns to face her. He has a large scar running across his face. Another Ironshirt asks the corporal what the matter is, and whether he knows Grusha. After looking at her for a moment, the Corporal replies that he does not.
The chance encounters and swirling chaos that characterize the play’s fourth act serve to disorient Grusha and remind the audience of the interconnectedness of all the moving parts of this story.
Natella and her two lawyers are on their way to the courtroom. Natella she says that she is grateful that no common people are present, since their smell gives her a headache. One of her lawyers bids her to be careful with what she says. Her second lawyer tells her that no common people have shown up to the trial because of the ongoing riots.
Natella remains as self-centered and as loathing of the common people as ever, completely blind to the suffering of the lower classes and the injustices they face each and every day.
Azdak and Shauwa are brought into the courtroom wearing chains. Three farmers are behind them. An Ironshirt chides Azdak for trying to run away, and then soldiers and farmers together tear off Azdak’s judge’s gown, beat him up, and put his neck in a noose. Natella laughs as Azdak is beaten. The Corporal and a messenger arrive with a dispatch from the Grand Duke stating that Azdak has been appointed as the official judge in the trial. The confused Corporal asks what is going on, and why Azdak has been beaten bloody. The Ironshirts answer that Azdak was already slated to judge the case, but that the farmers gathered together to denounce him as an enemy of the Grand Duke. The Corporal orders the farmers to be taken away, and proclaims that Azdak will be exposed to no more violence. Then he and his messenger depart.
Azdak is caught in the crosshairs of the political and social unrest that have gripped Nuka. In attempting to run away from the trial, he has exposed himself to the judgement of others, for once. The senseless beating of Azdak at the hands of suspicious farmers once again mirrors the hostile political environment in which Brecht found himself during the early ears of the Cold War, while the absurdity and confusion surrounding the physical and moral assault against Azdak represent the panic, disorganization, and danger of attempting to negatively expose or “root out” a political ideology.
Azdak dresses himself in his torn judge’s robes and the Ironshirts unchain him. Azdak orders Shauwa to bring him some wine, and sends the Ironshirts out of his chambers, as he has a case to judge. Shauwa returns with the wine, and Azdak now asks Shauwa to bring him “something for [his] backside”—Shauwa places the Statute Book on the judge’s chair, and Azdak sits down upon it.
Azdak sits down upon the Statute Book, expressing his disdain for the laws contained within it and his commitment to pursuing justice even if it means deviating from the law. In this way, Azdak’s character represents the need the continually reassess laws in order to ensure their righteousness.
Natella’s lawyers approach Azdak, and pass him a bit of money. Azdak counts the money and puts it away. Natella’s lawyers proclaim that the “ridiculous” case is centered around Grusha, who has abducted Michael and now refuses to return him to his mother. Azdak looks at Grusha, and notes that she is an attractive woman. He demands truth from the entire court from that moment forward, and opens proceedings. Azdak asks Natella’s lawyers what their fee is, but they refuse to answer. Azdak admits that he knows the question is unusual, but explains that he listens differently to lawyers when he knows they are good at their jobs and thus expensive to retain.
Natella’s lawyers attempt to bribe Azdak, apparently unaware of his pattern of taking form the rich and giving to the poor. Considering that Azdak first swore allegiance to Natella, then attempted to run away and escape having to judge her trial, his motivations at this point in the scene are deeply muddied, and the audience and the characters alike are unsure of what to expect from this case. Azdak asks for truth and justice in his court, but also cheekily asks the lawyers if they have an expensive retainer, further adding to the confusion and chaos in the courtroom.
One of Natella’s lawyers begins his opening statements, waxing poetic about the role of blood ties and the sacred relationship between mother and daughter. He paints Natella as a bereaved mother who has been “robbed of her young.” Azdak interrupts the lawyer to ask Grusha what her answer to the lengthy statement is, and Grusha replies very simply that the child is hers. Azdak asks her to prove it, and explain why the child should be assigned to her. Grusha explains that she brought Michael up; she fed him, housed him, and went to great lengths to make sure he was safe.
In this passage Brecht is highlighting the ways in which society’s traditional notions about motherhood can be damaging or destructive. Grusha is clearly the one who is fit to mother the child, and though she knows this plainly in her heart, she must defend herself against someone who is very obviously unfit for the role. Even though Natella is related to the child by blood, Brecht argues, her abysmal treatment of him should bar her from being considered fit to mother him.
Natella’s lawyer resumes his speech. Natella cuts in to describe her “torture[d]” soul, and her second lawyer adds that in the wake of the unrest in Grusinia, Natella has nothing except for her son. Natella’s lawyers then segue into discussing what the outcome of this trial will inevitably determine—that is, whether Michael will be the heir to his dead father’s estates. Azdak proclaims that he is “touched” by the lawyers’ mention of estates, and sees it as “proof of human feeling.”
In this passage, Natella’s true motivation for bringing Grusha to trial is revealed—she has had “nothing” after her husband’s death, but that “nothing” extends only to wealth and power. Natella is not really concerned with getting her son back—just his inheritance. Azdak’s remark implies that wealthy people’s obsession with their own wealth only proves their lack of humanity.
Natella’s lawyers explain that after Michael was left behind under “unfortunate” circumstances, Grusha stole him away. The cook, Grusha’s friend, speaks up to defend her. She says that all Natella could think of as she prepared to flee was which dresses she wanted to pack. One of Natella’s lawyers counters that claim by describing how Grusha fled into the mountains and got married, attempting to paint her as an irresponsible woman and mother.
The testimony each party offers against the other becomes more and more bitter, and Natella’s lawyers attempt to shame and denigrate Grusha and bring her down to Natella’s level.
Simon speaks up and says that he is the child’s father. The cook once again speaks up and adds that she used to watch the child for Simon and Grusha. One of Natella’s lawyers states that Simon’s testimony is suspicious and biased, as he is engaged to Grusha.
Realizing that the case is already going off the rails, Simon and the cook attempt to sway things in Grusha’s favor however they can.
Azdak asks Grusha why she married in the mountain village if she was engaged to Simon, and she confesses that she married to keep a roof over Michael’s head while Simon was away at war. Azdak asks whether Grusha’s child comes from whoring, and whether he is a “ragged little bastard” or a child borne “from a good family.” Grusha insists that Michael is just an ordinary child.
Although now even Azdak is attempting to shame Grusha and imply that she is an unfit mother, Grusha stands defiant in her insistence that she and Michael are a unit, and that everything she has done was only to ensure his well-being.
Azdak announces that he will not listen to any more lies from either side. Grusha accuses Azdak of accepting a bribe from the opposing side, but Azdak tells her that everyone but “starvelings” like Grusha pays him off. Grusha exclaims that even though Natella is rich and refined, she would have no idea how to care for her own child. Azdak holds Grusha in contempt, and fines her twenty piasters.
Azdak attempts to restore order and integrity to the arguments in his court, even as Grusha accuses him of malpractice and bribe-taking. Thus, the courtroom grows more and more chaotic by the second.
Grusha goes on a tirade, admonishing Azdak by asking him how he dare speak to her so cruelly and calling him a “drunken onion.” She accuses him of protecting the wealthy, who themselves stole their wealth from other people. Azdak, amused, grins widely, tapping out a beat with his gavel as Grusha continues her tirade. She tells Azdak that she has no respect for him, and that although he may take her child away from her, he is no better than “extortioners” and “men who rape children.”
Grusha lays Azdak flat by exposing what she perceives as his unjust and corrupt approach to ruling. Azdak is amused and enlivened by Grusha’s tirade, and is almost thrilled, it seems, to be ripped apart in such a manner. This demonstrates his contempt for normalcy and his desire to be seen and known as an iconoclast who is “above” the law.
Azdak adjourns court for fifteen minutes, telling Grusha that he has momentarily lost interest in her case. Natella’s lawyers tell her that they have the verdict “in the bag.” The cook laments that Grusha has ruined her chances by going off on such a tirade. Meanwhile, an elderly couple enters the courtroom and approaches Azdak. They want a divorce after having been married for forty years, and explain that they don’t like each other, and haven’t from the beginning. Azdak promises he will consider their request and let them know the verdict when he is through with his first case.
As another case enters the courtroom, the chaos continues to escalate. It seems as if Grusha has ruined her chances, and her allies worry whether things will be able to swing back in her favor.
Azdak proclaims that he needs someone to go and fetch Michael. He then calls Grusha to him, and asks her discreetly why she wouldn’t want the child to grow up rich. If she only admits that he isn’t hers, Azdak says, Michael can live in the lap of luxury and want for nothing. Arkadi intervenes to sing Grusha’s thoughts aloud. She knows that if Michael grows up rich, he will be “cruel as a bear” and become evil.
Shauwa enters with Michael, and Natella is appalled to see that he is dressed in commoner’s clothing. Grusha replies that Natella couldn’t even be bothered to dress her baby—on the contrary, she abandoned him. Natella attempts to physically attack Grusha, but her lawyers hold her back.
Natella and Grusha continue to fight amongst themselves over who is the more “fit” mother. Although Grusha has dressed the child in simple clothing, Natella could not be bothered to look after her child at all, underscoring the difference in the kind of care each woman is able to provide.
Azdak announces that as he has been unable to come to a decision about who the child’s real mother is, he must choose one. He begins to devise a test. He calls to Shauwa to use a piece of chalk to draw a circle on the floor, and to place Michael in the center. Shauwa does so. Azdak then instructs Natella and Grusha to stand near the circle at opposite ends, and to each take the child by one hand. Natella and Grusha do as they have been told. Azdak then tells the women that the true mother is the one who can pull the child out of the circle.
Azdak has devised a test of physical strength which will determine who the child’s true mother is. In the manner of all his other cases, his methods are unclear and unpredictable, but in a moment of such high emotions and high stakes it is easy to forget how wily Azdak really is, and how topsy-turvy his motivations and rulings often are.
Natella’s lawyers object, but Azdak ignores them and orders the women to pull. Natella yanks Michael out of the circle onto her side while Grusha looks on in horror, not having made a move to pull on Michael at all. Natella’s lawyers begin celebrating the “ties of blood” they had argued for earlier, while Grusha runs to Azdak and begs him to allow her to keep Michael just a little while longer.
Grusha is terrified to lose her child, and after it seems she has failed the test of the chalk circle, she desperately attempts to bargain with Azdak for just a little more time with the child she loves so dearly.
Azdak tells her to stop trying to influence the court, but agrees to let the women take the test once more. Grusha and Natella assume their position, but again only Natella pulls at Michael and yanks him out of the ring. Grusha, frustrated, asks whether she should be expected to tear her child into pieces—she couldn’t possibly yank at him so, she says. Azdak announces that the Court has determined the child’s true mother. He turns to Grusha, and tells her to take her child and go. He advises her to leave the city, and advises Natella to do the same before he fines her for fraud. He tells Natella that all her husband’s estates will go to the city, and will be converted into a playground for children named “Azdak’s Garden.” Natella faints, and her lawyers drag her from the courtroom.
Grusha proves herself to be Michael’s rightful mother through her refusal to cause him any harm, even though to do so would be to ensure her own success in the case. Even if it means giving him up, she will not hurt her child. This pure and unconditional love is the mark of a true mother. Azdak, true to form, devised a test which tested its subjects in unexpected ways. Moreover, he seizes the funds that Grusha so clearly does not care about and vows to use them for the betterment of Nuka’s children. Although Azdak’s approach to justice is chaotic, it is effective, and demonstrates his commitment to truth and goodness.
Azdak removes his judge’s gown, stating that it has gotten too hot for him to wear it any longer—he signs the elderly couple’s divorce papers and leaves the chambers, inviting all present to join him outside for a dance. When Shauwa checks the divorce document, he sees that Azdak has divorced the wrong couple—he has divorced Grusha from Jussup rather than divorcing the elderly couple. Before leaving, Azdak reminds Grusha and Simon of the forty piasters they owe him for speaking out of order in his court. Simon pays him off, and Azdak pockets the cash.
It is implied that when Azdak takes the robes off in this scene he is taking them off for good, having grown weary of the role. However, as his final act, he has once again subverted the law by divorcing Grusha from her cruel husband in order to make way for her and Simon to be together. Azdak still collects a fine, though, demonstrating the endurance of his wily and self-preserving instincts.
Simon, Grusha, and Michael rejoice at being all together at last. Grusha dances with Michael, Simon dances with the cook, and the old couple who had wanted a divorce dance with each other. Azdak stands alone, “lost in thought.”
While the other characters celebrate the triumph of justice and goodness, Azdak stands alone, overwhelmed by all that has transpired and possibly demoralized by all the corruption that still remains in Grusinia despite the small goods he has done.
Arkadi intervenes one final time to announce that after that night Azdak was never again seen in Grusinia. No one forgot about him, and all remembered his time as judge as “almost an age of justice.” Arkadi implores his audience to take Azdak’s final ruling to heart: “What there is shall go to those who are good for it.”
The moral of Arkadi’s story mirrors the decision arrived at by the peasants and farmers in the prologue—that those who will make the best use of something and ensure that it prospers should be the ones to rightfully possess it. The fertile valley went to those who planned to improve it, and the noble child has gone to his true mother.