Abhijñanashakuntala, or Shakuntala, is Kalidasa’s best-known play, and, perhaps the best known play of the classical Sanskrit repertoire. The play takes its title from one of its central characters, a young woman raised in a forest hermitage. Like others of Kalidasa’s heroines, however, the young woman is not merely a hermit. Her forest life is temporary, and she comes into her real identity—an identity of which she is mostly unaware when the play begins—through her interaction with a king during the course of the play.
Shakuntala reiterates other themes that are common to Kalidasa’s other plays. Like Pururavas in Vikramorvashiya, Duhshanta spends a chunk of the play—most of Act Six—lamenting Shakuntala’s absence and his part in it.
In the end, the play demonstrates a consistent principle of Sanskrit drama. As opposed to the Aristotelian vision of dramatic characters to begin in a particular condition at a specific plot point and develop over the course of succeeding plot points so as to be different following the climactic culmination of plot points, the characters of Shakuntala have changed little in the end. The play does have a plot, and the events affect the characters greatly. But the conclusion of the play finds Duhshanta and Shakuntala and their son going to the palace to live with each other happily ever after, just as the ascetic in the hermitage promises in the first act. In Kalidasa’s play, circumstances of plot may divert the characters from what they are as the play begins. But the characters are ultimately fixed entities who do not “learn” through the play so as to become something else. Instead, characters must return to what they are.
Director: the director of the play, who appears in the prologue with the actress
Actress: an actress in the troupe that performs the play, who appears in the prologue with the director
King Duhshanta: king of Hastinapura
Shakuntala: a young hermit of divine parentage
Madhavya: the play’s obligatory vidushaka, or clown. King Duhshanta erstwhile companion
Anasuya: a young woman who is Shakuntala’s hermitage friend
Priyamvada: a young woman who is Shakuntala’s hermitage friend
Kanva: Shakuntala’s adoptive father in the forest hermitage
Gautami: presiding female hermit in the hermitage
Sharngarava: a male hermit
Sharadvata: a male hermit
Durvasas: a traveling sage with a bad temper
Vatayana: the king’s chamberlain
Somarata: chief priest of the palace
Karabhaka: a royal messenger
Vetravati: the principal female steward of the king’s court
Madhukarika: a maid
Parabhrtika: a maid
Chaturika: a servant
Raivataka: steward of the king’s chamber
Hamsapadika: one of Duhshanta’s wives (only her voice is heard)
Suchaka: a policeman
Januka: a policeman
Maricha: keeper of the celestial hermitage
Aditi: Maricha’s wife
Matali: Indra’s charioteer
Sanumati: a celestial nymph
Boy: Duhshanta’s and Shakuntala’s son
SUMMARY OF THE PLAY
Act One: Following the nandi-prayer, the director and an actress appear in a prologue. The director and the actress discuss the audience and the appropriate play to perform for them. They decide upon Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala, but the director is so caught away by a song that the actress sings that he forgets which play they’ve decided on. The actress reminds him.
Duhshanta enters on a chariot, chasing a deer. A hermit stops him, pointing out that he has entered a hermitage in which the animal is protected. The king relents. The hermit blesses the king with the promise of a son. Passing further into the hermitage, King Duhshanta surreptitiously watches Shakuntala, Anusuya, and Priyamvada. When a bee troubles Shakuntala, Duhshanta leaves his hiding place, but does not reveal that he is the king, though he gives to Shakuntala a ring that suggests his identity. The king’s soldiers disturb the hermitage and he leaves to draw them away.
Act Two: The clown Madhavya enters, complaining. Madhavya and the king conspire to get close to Shakuntala. Duhshanta sends Madhavya back to the palace to participate in his place at the ceremonies marking the end of the king’s mother’s fast.
Act Three: Having revealed his identity, King Duhshanta rests in the hermitage. The king spies on Anusuya, Priyamvada, and Shakuntala, talking obliquely of romance. He discerns that Shakuntala is smitten with him. When Shakuntala sings a love poem, the king steps out of hiding. They all speak obliquely of romance. Anusuya and Priyamvada slip away. Duhshanta and Shakuntala get close, but the king hides when Gautami appears. The king puzzles over his failure to take advantage of the moment, then leaves to protect the evening rites.
Act Four: Anusuya and Priyamvada discuss Shakuntala’s marriage to Duhshanta, which has been accomplished simply by the two lovers’ common consent. They hear Durvasas’s angry voice, chastising Shakuntala for not attending to him properly upon his arrival at the hermitage. Because she is distracted by thoughts of her lover, the sage imposes a curse that her lover will completely forget her. Priyamvada dashes offstage and returns to report that because she implored the sage to reconsider, Durvasas has allowed that although the king will forget Shakuntala, the glimpse of the ring the king gave to her will restore his memory. Shakuntala prepares to leave for the king’s palace, escorted by Gautami, Sharngarava, and Saradvata. Shakuntala’s departure from the hermitage is charged with emotion.
Act Five: King Duhshanta sends Madhavya into the king’s chambers to try to mollify Queen Hamsapadika, who is upset over the king’s feelings for his other wives. The embassy from Kanva’s hermitage is announced in the court. Shakuntala, Gautami, Sharngarava, and Saradvata enter. They all feel misgivings. Sharngarava informs the king that Shakuntala is pregnant, and requests that the king receive her as his wife. The king has forgotten Shakuntala entirely, and treats the request as a scam. Shakuntala discovers that Duhshanta’s ring has disappeared from her finger. Gautami specualtes that Shakuntala lost it while bathing. Shakuntala accuses the king of exploiting her. The king responds with accusations of his own. Sharngarava repudiates Shakuntala and refuses to return her to the hermitage, though Gautami pleads otherwise. A court priest convinces the king to allow Shakuntala to stay in the palace until she gives birth so that her son can be examined for marks of royalty. The priest proposes to send her back to the hermitage if the child proves to have no such signs. The king consents to the priest’s plan, but before it can be implemented, Shakuntala storms out, calling the earth to receive her. The report returns from offstage that a ray of light seized Shakuntala and carried her off. King Duhshanta is bewildered.
Act Six: Two policemen bring a fisherman to the chief of police with the accusation that the fisherman has stolen a royal signet ring the officers have found in his possession. The fisherman claims to have found it in the belly of a fish. The police chief goes to the palace and returns with the order to release the fisherman and with compensatory payment for the ring. The police chief reports that the sight of the ring disturbed the king. Sanumati comes invisibly to check up on Duhshanta and overhears two maids discussing the king’s miserable condition with the royal chamberlain. Duhshanta has cancelled all celebrations. Sanumati comments to herself that Shakuntala is similarly miserable. Duhshanta and Madhavya talk of what has happened while Sanumati listens. Chaturika brings in the king’s painting of Shakuntala. The king loses himself in the painting. Word comes that Queen Vasumati is on her way. Madhavya takes the painting and flees. Word of a shipwreck arrives. A wealthy merchant is dead. Duhshanta orders that the merchant’s wealth go to one of his surviving wives who is pregnant. Duhshanta hears a cry of distress. Matali appears and takes Duhshanta to fight off demons threatening Indra.
Act Seven: Having vanquished the demons, Matali and Duhshanta pass through heaven. Duhshanta asks to visit Maricha’s celestial hermitage. Matali leaves Duhshanta beneath a hermitage tree. The king hears a disturbance and finds a young boy wrestling with a lion cub. Duhshanta sees the marks of royalty on the boy. The boy’s armlet falls off and Duhshanta picks it up. Two ascetics tell Duhshanta that if anyone but the boy’s parents pick up the armlet, it turns to a snake and strikes the perpetrator. Shakuntala arrives. She does not, at first, recognize Duhshanta, who recounts the manner in which the ring restored his memory. Matali, Maricha, and Aditi arrive. They explain Durvasas’s curse. The family is reunited and returns to Duhshanta’s palace.