The play is a retelling of an ancient fairytale, although its immediate source is the Mahabharata. The play was intended for a courtly venue, and one of Kalidasa's goals is to invoke rasa. This emotional state is achieved in part through music and dance, but largely through storytelling and the spoken word. Kalidasa blends narrative -- storytelling -- with lyrical passages of great power. One must pay close attention to the playwright's use of words and images. Inevitably, much is lost in translation, but as any good translation will, this one captures the essence of the play and, if some elements are lost, the translator introduces new, parallel effects to make up for the loss.
Shakuntala is one of the few works of Indian literature to have had significant impact on Western writers. Sir William Jones translated the play into English in 1789. Its interplay of nature and culture appealed to the Romantics, perhaps most notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He acknowledged his indebtedness to Kalidasa in his introduction to his great masterpiece, Faust. Goethe also wrote of the play:
Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
(Do you want the blossoms of springtime and the fruits of its aging;
I. Kalidasa, a worshipper of Shiva, begins the play with a verse that embodies the god.
III. Unable to literally place a buck and speeding chariot on stage, Kalidasa evokes the image verbally
IV. While King Dusyanta is not averse to killing the buck, the acetics are vegetarians and opposed to
V. He sees young female ascetics, and likes what he sees:
VI. While hiding Dusyanta sees Sakuntala. She is blossoming into womanhood, as the poet expounds
VII. Dusyanta is immediately attracted to Sakuntala, which puzzles him because her father is of a lower
VIII. Dusyanta learns that Sakuntala is the daughter of a royal sage (and as his social equal acceptable
While set in the forest near the ascetics' hermitage, act two deals with social issues. The buffoon is exhausted from the king's hunting. Fortunately for him, Dusyanta has lost his urge to hunt, focusing only on how to see Sakuntala again. He rejects his general's call to the hunt and reassures the buffoon that he would never have fallen in love with a social inferior. The buffoon still doubts that a country girl can have the appeal of a palace-bred woman. Dusyanta debates as to whether she really feels toward him as he does toward her, and decides that she does. He considers how to visit the hermitage again, and as luck would have it some boys from the hermitage arrive and request his help in repelling some demons that are trying to take advantage of the sage's absence. Dusyanta's situation is complicated when a messenger arrives and calls him back to fulfill his filial obligations to his mother. Dusyanta solves two problems by sending the buffoon home in his place, along with his entire retinue.
Act Three parallels Act One. Dusyanta hides and observes the (literally) love-sick Sakuntala. When he is convinced that his love for her is returned, he reveals himself. Sakuntala's friends tactfully leave. Dusyanta seeks physical consummation of their love, and speaks of gandharva marriage as a moral justification. Sakuntala resists, and with the return of her friends and the old woman, their love remains unconsummated. Dusyanta is called to his duty as protector against demons.
Act Four is the fulcrum upon which the play balances. It looks back to all that has happened and sets the stage for everything to come. There is a considerable lacuna in the action between acts three and four. The love of Dusyanta and Sakuntala has been consummated, Sakuntala is pregnant, and Dusyanta has departed for the city. To a great extent, the act is a study in the bhava (emotion) of shoka, separation from a loved one. Lost in shoka, Sakuntala fails to extend a greeting to a guest. The guest turns out to be Durvasas, a well-known literary character known for his curses. He places a curse of forgetfulness on Dusyanta. Sakuntala's friends try to undo the damage, but Durvasas will relent only so far as to say thay Dusyanta will remember her again when he sees the ring he has given her. The girls do not tell Sakuntala of the calamity. Sakuntala is prepared for her departure to her new husband, and the local spirits provide clothing and jewelry. After much lamentation, Sakuntala departs and her father Kanva finds peace.
The next two acts are set in the palace, currently a place of unnatural disorder, in contrast to the natural world of the hermitage. One of Dusyanta's wives sings a lament over losing the king's favor to another woman. The words return to the metaphors of the mango and the bee, thus the lament operates on two levels, and Dusyanta reacts emotionally. He ascribes the feeling to vague memories of a lover from some previous life. The pregnant Sakuntala is presented to the king, who is attracted by her beauty, but concludes that she is another man's wife::
The Ring of Polykrates -- a fisherman is brought before the magistrate (the king's brother-in-law) for stealing the king's ring. The king rewards him. The sight of the ring brings back Dusyanta's memory, but this central event occurs off-stage. After this initial scene, the apsaras Sanumati descends to observe Dusyanta. He has cancelled the Spring festival in his grief. Dusyanta contemplates a picture of Sakuntala, and madly drives off a bee that is drawn to the painting. (In Act One, Sakuntala is madly attacked by a bee and "saved" by Dusyanta). He faints in grief. Sanumati wants to tell him that Sakuntala is safe, but refrains because she knows the gods have become involved. Indra's charioteer arrives and threatens the buffoon to arouse Dusyanta from his despondency. The charioteer explains that Dusyanta is needed to defeat a horde of demonsl
Having defeated the demon horde, Dusyanta begins his return to earth. On the way he and the charioteer stop at the celestial hermitage of Marica, father of the gods. Dusyanta meets his son and, through a series of events, recognizes him. One element of recognition involves a play on words. Shakunta in Sanskrit means "bird" (sometimes specifically a type of crane in Prakrits). When the child is given a toy bird he asks for his mother. Kalidasa saves this clever surprise for the end of the play, but in the Mahabharata we learn that when the offspring of the royal sage and the apsaras is left near the hermitage of Kanva, the baby is watched over by a flock of birds, hence her name. In short order, Sakuntala and Dusyanta are reunited and all is set in order. The play closes with their imminent departure for home.