King Dusyanta, holding a bow and arrow and being driven in a chariot, enters the scene, in pursuit of a deer. The chariot picks up speed, and the king prepares to shoot, when suddenly an offstage voice warns him that the deer belongs to the hermitage and mustn’t be killed. Vaikhanasa, a forest-dwelling ascetic, reminds the king that his job is to defend the oppressed, not to harm them. The king duly reins in the chariot and drops his weapon.
The play opens with exciting action, as the King is on the hunt. But on the cusp of triumph, his pursuit is cut short by the ascetic’s warning. One of the traditional duties of kings was to be a guardian of religious practitioners, and Dusyanta is a faithful king. This scene sets the stage for the significance of asceticism and duty in the play.
Vaikhanasa, in response to the King’s merciful action, pronounces a prophetic wish: “May you have a son / With all your virtues, / Destined to rule the world.” He urges the King to receive the hospitality of the nearby hermitage, which belongs to the great sage Kanva. The visit will make the King realize “how far your own bow-scarified arm / Reaches to give protection.”
The ascetic Vaikhanasa speaks a prophecy, which is even more momentous than the King realizes at the time; his son will be a key to the resolution of the story. Receiving the hospitality of a hermitage would be a special blessing both for the King and for the ascetics who benefit from his special protection.
Vaikhanasa then explains that Kanva himself is not at home, because he has gone to appease the gods on behalf of his daughter, Shakuntala, who’s been left behind to receive guests.
The ascetic doesn’t elaborate on Kanva’s errand, though it will later emerge that he’s foreseen a curse befalling his daughter. Ironically, if he hadn’t been absent when Dusyanta arrived, then the curse would likely have been averted in the first place—but so would the play’s entire romance.
As they drive toward the hermitage, King Dusyanta comments to his driver that it’s obvious they’re near the holy groves—the deer stroll unafraid, the trees are well tended, and the smoke of sacrificial ghee (clarified butter used in rituals) drifts by. When the chariot stops, the King removes his insignia and bow in order to look “modest and humble” before going in. As he enters the grounds, a vein throbs in his arm—an omen “presaging some woman’s charm.”
The hermitage is a place of harmony, which is reflected in its peaceful natural environment. In a minor act of concealment—which will become a common thread in the story—the King hides his royal identity. Given the ascetic environment, he’s surprised to receive an omen that foretells romantic attraction.
Right away, the King sees some hermitage girls going to the sacred grove to water the trees. He hides himself in the shadows to observe the “charming sight.” It’s Shakuntala, with her two friends, Anasuya and Priyamvada. Shakuntala chats with her friends as they work, remarking that she loves these trees “like sisters.”
The King hides himself so that he can watch the beautiful girls without being seen. He observes Shakuntala, the sage Kanva’s daughter, for the first time. Shakuntala loves the hermitage trees, and her beauty is often associated with the trees throughout the play.
Dusyanta is surprised to see Kanva’s beautiful daughter doing menial tasks. He watches her more intently. As Shakuntala loosens her chafing bark garment, the King remarks to himself that “this slight child beggars her beggar’s clothes / all rags are gowns on girls who burn this bright.”
The King thinks the beautiful Shakuntala looks out of place doing manual labor. She wears traditional ascetic clothing made from tree bark (which again emphasizes her connection to the natural world), but even thus modestly dressed, there are strong erotic overtones to his observation of her.
As Shakuntala waters a mango tree, Priyamvada remarks that “with you next to it, that tree looks as though it’s been married to a beautiful, sinuous vine.” At a distance, the King agrees, observing how “youth pushes up through all her limbs.”
Shakuntala, with her slight, youthful figure, is associated with the beauty of trees again. The King continues to take in the appealing sight from his hidden spot, setting up the concealment that will continue to define their relationship in various ways throughout the play.
Shakuntala then approaches the jasmine tree she has named Light of the Forest. Gazing at it, she tells the other girls, “the union of this tree and this jasmine has taken place at the most wonderful time—the jasmine is a young plant, covered in fresh blossoms, the mango has soft buds, and is ready for enjoyment…”
Shakuntala’s remarks about the two trees, with their strongly erotic overtones, anticipate her own union with Dusyanta and again show how, in the world of the play, human emotion is often reflected in the natural world.
Priyamvada comments playfully that Shakuntala is thinking along these lines because she, too, wants a suitable husband. The King thinks that if only Shakuntala were the daughter of a brahmin and a woman of another class, then he could hope to marry her. Meanwhile, Shakuntala is frightened by a bee that’s been disturbed by her watering. Dusyanta envies the bee’s closeness to Shakuntala.
If Shakuntala were the daughter of two brahmins, then she would only be permitted to marry another brahmin. It later emerges that the King needn’t have worried, since Shakuntala’s real father was a member of the princely class, making her eligible to marry him. In any case, the King is so taken with Shakuntala that he’s already thinking in terms of marriage, even though it’s not clear how such an attraction can coexist with his royal duties.
Shakuntala’s friends say that she should call on King Dusyanta for help, since he’s the protector of ascetic groves. The King hesitates a moment, then reveals his presence, stepping out of the shadows. The girls are surprised and agitated. Dusyanta asks Shakuntala how her religious practice is going. Shakuntala is speechless.
The girls joke about summoning Dusyanta, and his unexpected appearance among them is startling, although they don’t immediately recognize him as the King. The King immediately focuses on Shakuntala, and his inquiry about her practice makes a somewhat awkward introduction.
Shakuntala wonders how it’s happened that “simply at the sight of this man, I am shaken with a passion so at odds with the religious life?” They all wonder who the mysterious man is, and Anasuya questions him. Dusyanta claims that he’s a newly appointed “Minister for Religious Welfare” who’s come to make sure the ascetics’ rituals aren’t being disrupted. Listening in silence, Shakuntala “displays all the embarrassment of erotic attraction.”
Shakuntala is attracted to Dusyanta as instantly as he was drawn to her, and she’s startled by the strength of her feelings—something she’s not used to, after a lifetime of religious asceticism. This moment makes it clear that, like Dusyanta, Shakuntala will have to confront conflicts between her sense of duty and her newfound feelings of love. Dusyanta’s claim about being a “Minister” isn’t completely off base, since such duties were within a king’s purview, but it’s clearly an invention, and Shakuntala sees through it. The stage direction—about her “embarrassment”—is in keeping with the conventions of classical Indian plays, in which feelings like attraction were conveyed more through gesture and expression than through speech.
Dusyanta asks how it’s possible that the chaste sage Kanva has a daughter. Anasuya explains that Kanva is Shakuntala’s foster father. She’s the biological daughter of a royal sage and a nymph, Menaka, who was sent to test the sage’s self-restraint. The King is heartened to learn that he and Shakuntala are actually of the same class.
Dusyanta feels encouraged to learn that Shakuntala is actually a member of the royal class, which removes the primary barrier to their marrying. Dusyanta’s questioning makes it fairly transparent that he’s interested in Shakuntala. Shakuntala’s connection with the nymphs will also be significant in later Acts.
Dusyanta is “eager to hear about the lives of the virtuous” and asks how long Shakuntala “will […] keep her love-starved hermit vows / Till she changes them for the marriage kind?” Shakuntala, appearing angry, tries to leave, but her friends urge her not to neglect hospitality to her distinguished guest.
The flirtation implied in Dusyanta’s questioning is obvious to Shakuntala, and she appears to try to evade it, but her friends appeal to the sacred duties of hospitality—Shakuntala’s particular responsibility in Kanva’s absence—to keep her there. Here, love and duty intersect, though Shakuntala is still clearly troubled by the seeming conflict between them.
The King observes that Shakuntala is exhausted from watering and offers her his signet ring as a way of discharging her debt of hospitality. When the girls see the King’s inscription on the seal, they’re shocked. Priyamvada says that Shakuntala has been released by the King and had better go; Shakuntala thinks, “If I have the strength.” Watching her, the King wonders if he dares hope that she returns his feelings, given Shakuntala’s shyness and evasive gaze.
The King finally reveals his identity, and Shakuntala is shaken, weakened by her desire for Dusyanta. Her shy demeanor hints that she’s simply modest, but the King can’t know for sure if she returns his feelings; again, concealment colors every phase of their relationship. The gift of the King’s ring will be significant later in the story.
Just then an offstage voice warns that King Dusyanta’s chariots have endangered the sacred grove, scattering the deer and sending an elephant on a rampage. As they part ways, Shakuntala lingers on the pretense of a snagged blouse, watching Dusyanta. The King thinks, “Suddenly, the city doesn’t seem so attractive […] The truth is, I can’t get Shakuntala out of my head.”
Dusyanta’s hunting party abruptly breaks up their meeting, but Shakuntala doesn’t want to leave the King. Though the King’s primary duty is in his capital city, he’s now feeling torn by his attraction to this hermitage girl. The chaos in the forest, in contrast to the earlier tranquility, echoes this sense of disruption and conflict between duty and love.