Two policemen enter, leading a fisherman. He’s been accused of stealing a ring with the King’s name engraved on it. The fisherman, frightened, insists that he discovered the ring in the belly of a fish he was cutting up. One of the policemen taunts the fisherman that he’ll soon be executed, but soon the chief of police returns from the palace with news that the fisherman’s story has been corroborated. The fisherman is also to be given a sum of money equal to the ring’s value. The chief adds that when Dusyanta saw the ring, he became “really agitated,” as though remembering someone important to him.
The playwright doesn’t show Dusyanta’s moment of revelation, choosing to relay it through this exchange between a lower-class fisherman and the police; again, emotion is hidden beneath layers of concealment, this time in the form of Dusyanta’s separation from the audience. Nonetheless, he news of Dusyanta’s agitation is enough to signal to the audience that, as Durvasas promised, the curse has been broken, and he has remembered Shakuntala.
A nymph, Sanumati, enters. She’s a friend of Menaka, Shakuntala’s mother, and has promised to help Shakuntala. She wonders why the palace isn’t being prepared for the spring festival and decides to spy on some gardeners in order to find out.
Major dramatic details continue to be relayed through intermediary figures, in this case a spying nymph, who visits the palace and notices that all isn’t as it should be.
The two young female gardeners, newcomers to the palace, are happily enjoying the scent of mango blossoms, when a chamberlain comes in and angrily scolds them for celebrating the spring festival in any manner. At the girls’ questioning, the chamberlain explains that the festival has been cancelled due to “the scandal of Shakuntala.” It turns out that when he saw the ring, Dusyanta remembered that he really did marry Shakuntala and “rejected her out of sheer delusion. And ever since, he has been mortified by regret” and depressed.
Sanumati learns of the King’s catastrophe, which is so far only apparent because of the uncharacteristic stifling of celebration. That is, the extent of the King’s depression is conveyed by the solemnity of the palace, particularly the lack of enjoyment of beautiful trees (which characterized earlier acts), rather than through direct expression.
The King enters, dressed as a penitent, and the chamberlain observes that the king still looks wonderful even though “wasted with remorse:” “His austerity lays bare / An inner brilliance and an ideal form.” The king paces, speaking of his heart’s remorse. Sanumati, invisibly watching, notes that Shakuntala feels the same grief. Vidusaka, looking on, calls the king’s illness “Shakuntala fever.”
The King’s austerity isn’t outwardly beautiful, but it conveys a spiritual “brilliance,” implying that even if his external attractiveness has faded, the King’s repentance and grief have refined his spiritual beauty.
The King sends word that, after a sleepless night, he’s not fit to sit in judgment over any civil cases today. Vidusaka encourages him to take a rest in the garden, where his “mind and . . . soul are fresh impaled” at the sight of the mango tree. He sits in the jasmine bower, where the vines remind him of Shakuntala. Sanumati hides behind the vines, watching.
In contrast to the joyful romance of the hermitage forest, the palace garden is a place of emotional anguish and loneliness. Again, the natural world reflects the emotional states of the main characters, this time by reflecting the King’s devastation. Since the nymph Sanumati is already invisible, it’s unclear why she needs to make a special effort to hide; it may be the playwright’s attempt to underscore the theme of concealment.
Vidusaka tries to cheer the King, arguing that if indeed Shakuntala was carried away by nymphs, then surely Menaka will take pity on her daughter and reunite the lovers before long. He also suggests that the recovery of Shakuntala’s ring, lost when she was worshipping at Indra’s ford in the Ganges, is “itself proof that coincidence fashions what has to be.” The king just faults both the ring and himself.
Vidusaka points out that Shakuntala’s connection with the nymphs might work to their advantage, and that even so-called coincidences indicate hidden forces at work. His words here highlight the importance of supernatural influence on human life and demonstrate how divine plans can even be a comfort to mortals. However, the King refuses to be consoled.
Then a maidservant, Caturika, enters, carrying a portrait of Shakuntala painted by the King. As Dusyanta resumes work on the painting, he laments that he rejected the living woman and must now obsess over her mere image: “I crossed the stream of living water / To drink from a mirage.” He notices a bee in the painting and warns it not to harm his beloved. When Vidusaka tells him it’s only a bee in a picture, Dusyanta responds, “What picture?”
The portrait seems to both comfort and torment the King, reminding him of his beloved while making their separation all the more painfully apparent. The bee recalls Dusyanta’s first meeting with Shakuntala. His depression is such that it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or deluded when he asks, “What picture?”
A little later, a doorkeeper enters with documents from a complex civil case demanding the king’s attention. A great merchant has been lost at sea, and because he was childless, his wealth goes to the King. Dusyanta reflects, “How terrible to be childless!” The wealth of Dusyanta’s own family will undergo a similar fate when he’s gone, because he abandoned his “fruitful wife” for no good reason. He wonders who will feed his ancestors in the afterlife. Sanumati wishes to console the king, but remembers that Indra’s queen plans to “maneuver matters” such that husband and wife will soon reunite; she must wait until the time is right.
Childlessness was a failure to fulfill one’s duty to one’s ancestors, since one couldn’t guarantee offspring to continue paying homage to their forebears in future generations. Thus it’s a source of deep grief to the King. But Sanumati’s comments assure the audience that everything is going to be put right; indeed, the audience already knows that Dusyanta isn’t childless after all, so perhaps he’ll be able to fulfill the duty that he currently feels he’s shirking.
Just then, offstage, Vidusaka yells for help in a strangled voice. The doorkeeper runs in, explaining that an invisible spirit has seized Vidusaka and dragged him onto the palace roof. Dusyanta rushes to his aid, but can’t see his friend. Just as he’s about to shoot an arrow anyway, Indra’s charioteer, Matali, materializes. Matali explains that there’s a near-invincible brood of demons that Dusyanta must face. He threatened Vidusaka to try to rouse Dusyanta from his depression by making him angry. Dusyanta agrees to mount Indra’s chariot and fulfill his duty of protecting the realm.
As in Act II, Dusyanta is unexpectedly called upon to render his services as a guardian against evil spirits. And, like the last time, this assignment will ultimately lead the King back to Shakuntala, by means of a path he couldn’t have contrived himself. It seems that, in the world of the play, supernatural intervention is necessary for the human characters to successfully join their opposing drives toward duty and passion.