In the capital, the King overhears a song that fills him with desire: “Have you forgotten—forgotten so soon, / How you settled on the mango bloom?” He wonders why the song arouses such passion in him: “I’m not even separated from someone I love.”
Then a chamberlain walks in, reluctant to disturb the King. However, “a king can’t put off his duty.” He reports that a group of forest ascetics have appeared with a message from Kanva, and that there are women among them, too. Dusyanta is surprised and wonders what business Kanva’s messengers have; their approach “fills [him] with unease.”
The entourage from Kanva’s hermitage interrupts the King in the midst of his royal business, suggesting an uneasy middle ground between love and duty. Dusyanta clearly doesn’t know what’s coming, but he has a premonition that it won’t be good.
As her party approaches the King, Shakuntala’s right eyelid trembles—an evil omen. The King, seeing Shakuntala at a distance, wonders, “Who is she, this veiled creature […] Enough. One shouldn’t stare at another man’s wife.” Arriving, the ascetics salute Dusyanta, and they formally greet each other.
Shakuntala’s bodily omen as she enters the city recalls the omen Dusyanta experienced when he approached the hermitage, but in this case, it’s a warning. Dusyanta ironically refrains from looking at his own wife. Shakuntala is hidden beneath her veil, but removing the veil won’t reveal the truth to the cursed King; here as throughout the play, concealment and separation are layered and complex.
One of Kanva’s messengers informs the King that Kanva isn’t displeased with Shakuntala’s secret marriage, since the two are so well matched in honor and virtue. Now that Shakuntala carries his child, he must receive her, and they’ll “perform [their] duties together as a couple should.” Baffled, Dusyanta asks, “What is being proposed? […] You’re saying this lady is already married to me?”
Shakuntala’s arrival should be a triumphant homecoming and reunion—duty and love finding their fulfillment as the two establish a household together—but instead, as the curse does its worst, their meeting is a disorienting nightmare for them both. As physical distance disappears, their separation from one another becomes all the greater.
One of the ascetics lifts the despondent Shakuntala’s veil so that Dusyanta will know her, but he continues to regard her in silence, finally admitting that he has no memory of their marriage and can’t accept a pregnant lady with whom he has no known connection. Shakuntala tries to clear her name and convince him, accusing him of having deceived her. Then, when she tries to show him the signet ring he’d given her, she discovers, to her shock, that the ring is missing from her finger.
Shakuntala, who doesn’t know about Durvasas’s curse, is heartbroken, and her grief turns to anger as Dusyanta denies any connection with her. Then she discovers, in the most dramatic moment of the play so far, that her ring, the object that would override the curse, has gone missing. At this point, the couple’s efforts to unite love and duty seem to have been completed thwarted by powers outside their control.
The more Shakuntala tries to spark Dusyanta’s memory, the more he accuses her of using “honeyed words” to deceive him: “Females of every kind / Have natural cunning to perform these tricks.” Shakuntala is angry, telling him that he sees “everything through the distorted lens of [his] own heart.” She reproaches herself for having entrusted herself to a man “with honey in his mouth but poison in his heart.”
Dusyanta’s accusation that Shakuntala is deceptive doesn’t show him in the best light, but Shakuntala stands up for herself, telling the King that his attitude towards her speaks volumes about what’s hidden in his heart. She assumes she’s been deceived as to his character, but the audience knows that it’s not actually Dusyanta who has done the deceiving; rather, it’s the hidden curse that interferes.
The ascetics prepare to go, telling Dusyanta it’s up to him to take or leave Shakuntala, since “a husband’s power is absolute.” They call Shakuntala presumptuous, saying that if she’s what Dusyanta claims, then she can’t stay in Kanva’s house. If her actions have been faultless, on the other hand, then she can bear the shame of his rejection.
Shakuntala is in a completely vulnerable, helpless situation, since as a woman, she doesn’t have much recourse. She’s abandoned both by her beloved and by her father’s household, the curse having a devastating ripple effect even though Shakuntala herself has done nothing wrong—and in fact, neither has the King.
Dusyanta consults with a court priest, wondering if it’s worse to “[collude] in the ruin of my faithful spouse / Or [risk] the defilement / Of another man’s wife?” Given the predictions about Dusyanta’s future son—that he’ll bear the bodily signs of a world emperor—the priest encourages the king to house Shakuntala until she gives birth, and then they can see the truth for themselves. Before Dusyanta can follow this advice, Shakuntala prays that the earth will swallow her up. Moments later, the court priest tells Dusyanta that the weeping girl has suddenly disappeared: “Close to the nymph’s shrine, a curtain of light / Shaped like a woman, whisked her away.” The king is still bewildered: “My heart’s so full of anguish / I almost think it may be true. / Have I betrayed her?”
The king, his conscience uneasy about the whole situation, asks a priest how he should respond and decides to show a degree of mercy to Shakuntala—but first she’s whisked beyond the human realm altogether. Even though Dusyanta can’t remember his bride, sympathy and shame seem to be at work deep down, suggesting that failing to join duty and love has painful consequences. Here, as before, the lovers’ relationship is defined by supernatural forces that go well beyond human intention. That is, Shakuntala may have wished to vanish, but the nymphs take her request much more literally than she likely intended.