In Shakuntala, there is a multi-layered exploration of concealment and revelation, which occurs most clearly in the complete hiddenness of Shakuntala and Dusyanta from one another during their six-year separation brought about by a curse. The lesser concealments in the story, such as hidden emotions, the ring swallowed by the fish, and people’s grief-altered appearances, mirror the central one: the secret of the couple’s marriage giving way, at last, to public acknowledgement of their union and royal reign. Through this complex interplay, Kalidasa suggests that the truth will always come to light, no matter what hardships (even supernatural obstacles) seem to obscure the truth along the way.
The couple’s initial courtship is marked by the interplay of clarity and concealment. For example, the King’s identity is concealed at first. Dusyanta hands over his insignia and bow to his driver before entering the hermitage so that he’ll appear modest and humble while there, thus concealing his royal identity. Then, as soon as the king enters the hermitage grounds, he sees Shakuntala and her friends at a distance and waits in the shadow of the trees to admire them. The king thus shields his identity both symbolically and physically at the outset of the play.
The feelings of the two eventual lovers are also hidden from one another at first. Despite flirting during their initial meeting, both Dusyanta and Shakuntala languish with symptoms of lovesickness, each unsure of the other’s true feelings. Later, after hearing Shakuntala reading a love poem she’s composed for him, the eavesdropping King abruptly reveals himself, confessing his own love. These teasing concealments and subsequent revelations set the tone for the weightier concealments to come.
Shakuntala’s and Dusyanta’s marriage is initially secret as well. The two are secretly married according to a gandharva marriage, which is effectively a declaration of love that is not solemnized by formal vows. Though genuine according to traditional law, their marriage itself therefore has a hidden character, which leads to the ambiguity of the middle part of the play, when they are separated for a time by Dusyanta’s royal duties.
In Act V, when Shakuntala arrives in the capital following a separation much grieved on her side, the king, thanks to a previous curse, has no memory of her or their marriage. Furthermore, the signet ring he’d given her as a keepsake marking their union slipped from Shakuntala’s finger and vanished when she was bathing in the Ganges. When she arrives in the capital, Shakuntala expects that her secret marriage will be publicly acknowledged. However, its reality is now concealed even from one of its parties (Dusyanta), resulting in an even greater estrangement—Shakuntala is spirited to a celestial realm by nymphs and hidden there for the next six years.
After Shakuntala leaves the earthly realm, the separation of the two lovers is so complete that they have to remember each other only through mere symbols. In Act VI, a fisherman finds Shakuntala’s lost ring concealed in the belly of a fish. When the King sees the ring, “he [becomes] really agitated for a while. Just as though he’d remembered someone out of the blue—someone he really cared for, perhaps.” He is so distraught when he remembers the truth about his marriage—and realizes he’d unknowingly rejected his own wife—that he cancels the spring festival, “mortified by regret.” The ring, which was intended to seal their promises to one another and confirm their reunion, instead only accentuates their separation.
Dusyanta assumes that the separation will be permanent. When he’s at the height of his lovesickness, Dusyanta looks at a portrait of Shakuntala he painted himself. “I rejected my love when she stood before me, / Yet now I’m obsessed by her painted image: / I crossed the stream of living water / To drink from a mirage.” In other words, Dusyanta failed to recognize reality, so he becomes fixated on the illusory likeness in the absence of the real thing.
When the lovers are finally reunited, their familiar appearances are obscured by years of grief and distance. After six years—during which time Shakuntala has lived with her son in the demigod Marica’s celestial hermitage, and Dusyanta has been dutifully fighting demons—the two are so much changed that they don’t recognize each other easily. Shakuntala is especially startled by her husband’s changed appearance, prompting the king to say, “My dear, that cruelty I practiced on you has come full circle, since now it is I who need to be recognized by you.” Shakuntala, too, looks different from her youthful appearance—the six years’ separation have inscribed themselves on her body and dress: “Her robes are dusky, drab, / Her hair a single braid, / Her cheeks drawn in by penance— / She’s been so pure and constant / In that vow of separation / I so callously began.”
But seeing Shakuntala this way prompts the recognition that Dusyanta failed to achieve when his bride stood before him earlier: “For in looking on your pale / Unpainted lips, I have at last / Recalled your face.” Furthermore, the secret marriage of the two is now publicly confirmed in the person of their son, the future emperor, and by Marica’s charge to them to rule on earth.
The trajectory of Kalidasa’s play—from a playful courtship in the obscurity of the hermitage forest, to a divinely prophesied marriage that ultimately rules over the whole realm—suggests that the play is about more than just one couple’s complicated romance. Rather than simply being complicated, the play suggests that this romance has a place in the cosmic order of things and thus can’t be permanently thwarted by human or supernatural opposition, no matter how it may have been hidden at various points.
Concealment and Separation ThemeTracker
Concealment and Separation Quotes in Shakuntala
ANASUYA. Dear Shakuntala, here’s that jasmine you call Light of the Forest. She’s chosen the fragrant mango as her bridegroom. You’ve forgotten her.
SHAKUNTALA. Only when I forget myself. [Approaches the jasmine and gazes at it] 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…
KING. […] Because I’m so eager to hear about the lives of the virtuous, there is another question I should like to ask.
PRIYAMVADA. Don’t hesitate, my lord—there are no bars to what you may ask an ascetic.
KING. Then tell me this about your friend:
How long will she keep her love-starved hermit vows—
Till she changes them for the marriage kind?
Or will she live forever among these hinds,
Doe-eyed among her beloved does?
SHAKUNTALA. Anasuya! I’ve spiked my foot on a blade of grass . . . And now my blouse is snagged on a branch. Wait while I free myself!
[Using this pretense to remain gazing at the king, SHAKUNTALA finally leaves with her friends]
KING. Suddenly, the city doesn’t seem so attractive. I’ll link up with my followers and camp just outside this sacred grove. The truth is, I can’t get Shakuntala out of my head.
My body forges on, my restless mind streams back—
A silken banner borne against the wind.
KING. Shakuntala seems to be very ill. [Pondering] Now, is it the heat, or is it the heart, as it is with me? [Gazing with longing] But there’s really no question:
Her breasts are smeared with lotus balm,
Her fibre bracelet slips her wrist,
Her body’s racked—and lovely still,
The summer sears her—but so does love,
And love with greater skill.
I cannot say I know your mind,
But day and night the god of love
Injects that pain through all my limbs,
Which you prepared—ah sweet unkind—
I cannot say I know your mind.
KING [revealing himself suddenly].
Slender lady, you should know
That same love which tortures you
Consumes me quite—
The sun, that merely dulls the lotus’ glow,
Engulfs the moon in azure light.
KING. Timid fawn—don't worry about your elders! The father of your family knows the law, and he shall find no fault in what you've done. Besides:
You wouldn't be the first royal sage's daughter
To take a prince for love—
And receive her father's blessings later.
SHAKUNTALA. Let me go now. I need to ask my friends’ advice.
KING. Yes. I shall release you—
When, like a bee, I kiss the bud of your unbruised lip
And flood my thirsting mouth with nectar.
[With these words, he tries to raise her face. SHAKUNTALA evades him with a dance]
OFF-STAGE VOICE. Red goose, take leave of your gander. Night is falling!
OFF-STAGE VOICE. So, you slight a guest, do you?
That man whose brilliance
Robs your thought of everything, including me,
A great ascetic fired by penance—
That man, though prompted,
Shall not remember you at all,
Like a drunken sot, who cannot recall
What he said in his cups the night before.
PRIYAMVADA. Ah! What a disaster! Absent-minded Shakuntala has offended someone she should have welcomed. [Looking ahead] And not just anyone—it’s the great sage Durvasas—short-tempered’s not the word! Now he’s cursed her, spun on his heel, and shot off like a flaming arrow!
SHAKUNTALA [aside]. Anasuya, mark that! How the wild goose honks in anguish because her mate is hidden by lotus leaves . . . But my suffering is worse.
[ANASUYA] Don’t say that, my dear!
Though the night seems everlasting
Without her mate,
Hope lifts her—time burns,
And she’ll endure the weight
VOICE [singing in the air].
Have you forgotten—forgotten so soon,
How you settled on the mango bloom,
Turning nectar to honey with kisses?
Have you really forgotten what bliss is?
To change it so quickly
For the wan and sickly
KING [to himself]. Why should this song fill me with desire, when I'm not even separated from someone I love? But perhaps
It's what survives of love from other lives,
Trapped in certain forms and sounds,
And then released by song,
That keys my mood
From happiness to longing.
[He remains in some bewilderment]
KING [staring at Shakuntala; to himself].
They offer me this flawless girl…
Could I have married her? I no longer know.
Like a bee mithering at dawn
Round a jasmine soaked in dew,
I can neither approach her, nor go.
[He remains thinking]
Doorkeeper [to herself]. Ah, duty always comes first for my lord. Who else would hesitate, faced with such a free and beautiful offer?
SARNGARAVA. So, king, why do you remain silent?
KING. Ascetics, however hard I try, I don’t remember marrying this lady. So how can I accept her when she’s obviously pregnant, and I have no reason to believe it’s anything to do with me?
SHAKUNTALA [aside]. What's the use in reminding him, when passion can change so monstrously? But I owe it to myself to clear my name. [Aloud] Dear husband—[she breaks off in the middle]—no, my right to address you in that way has been cast into doubt. Puru King, then . . . It becomes you very well to disown a naive and innocent girl with meagre words, after you used them so richly to deceive me in the hermitage.
KING [covering his ears]. Enough of this wickedness!
What are you doing?
Like a torrent in spate,
Dissolving its banks,
Undercutting great trees,
You pollute yourself and your family's name
In your vile attempt to shame
And drag me down.
SHAKUNTALA. Very well! If you really think you're in danger of taking another man's wife, let me show you something that will refresh your memory.
KING. An excellent idea.
SHAKUNTALA [feeling her ring-finger]. No! It can’t be! The ring has gone from my finger!
CHAMBERLAIN [observing the KING]. Whatever the conditions, exceptional beauty always entrances us. Even though wasted with remorse, the king looks wonderful.
Instead of jewels, he wears a single band
Above his left-hand wrist; his lips are cracked
By sighs; brooding all night has drained his eyes
Of lustre; yet, just as grinding reveals
A gem, his austerity lays bare
An inner brilliance and an ideal form.
SAMUMATI [aside, staring at the KING]. I can see why Shakuntala goes on pining for him, even though he rejected and humiliated her.
KING [pacing about slowly, deep in thought].
Useless heart—buried in sleep
When my doe-eyed girl
Tried to wake it.
Now it beats in pain
To each pang of remorse,
And shall never sleep again.
I rejected my love when she stood before me,
Yet now I'm obsessed by her painted image:
I crossed the stream of living water
To drink from a mirage.
VIDUSAKA [aside]. It's too late for the river now, but there's no dispelling the mirage.
I planted the seed of myself,
Then, without lawful reason,
Abandoned my fruitful wife,
Blighting that golden season.
SANUMATI [aside]. Yet your line will not be broken.
CATURIKA. [whispering to the DOORKEEPER]. This story about the merchant has only compounded His Majesty's suffering. Go and fetch noble Madhavya from the Palace of Clouds to console him.
DOORKEEPER. A good idea! [Exits]
KING. Dusyanta's ancestors are unsettled and ask:
‘Who will feed us in the afterlife
As he does now, if there is no heir?’
And thus distressed, they drink the offering
Mixed with tears. [He faints]
CATURIKA [looking at him in consternation]. You’ll be all right, my lord!
KING. Indra honors me, indeed. But why this rough treatment of Madhavya?
MATALI. Quite simple. I saw you were depressed for one reason or another, and sought to rouse you by making you angry.
Stir the embers and the fire leaps up,
Threaten the snake and its hood expands—
Everything in nature, if provoked, responds.
KING [aside to the VIDUSAKA]. Friend, I cannot ignore the Lord of Heaven's command. Inform Minister Pisuna what's happened, and tell him this from me:
Concentrate your mind on protecting the realm:
My bow and I have godly business to perform.
KING [seeing Shakuntala]. Ah, it is the lady Shakuntala!
Her robes are dusky, drab,
Her hair a single braid,
Her cheeks drawn in by penance—
She’s been so pure and constant
In that vow of separation
I so callously began.
SHAKUNTALA [seeing the KING pale from suffering]. He doesn’t look like my husband. Who is this who dares to pollute my son with his touch, in spite of the amulet?
BOY [running to his mother]. Mamma, this stranger is calling me his son!
KING. My dear, that cruelty I practiced on you has come full circle, since now it is I who need to be recognized by you.
MARICA. When Menaka came to Aditi, transporting her daughter from the nymphs' ford in such obvious distress, I saw, in meditation, that you had rejected your forest wife because of a curse, spoken by Durvasas. I saw too that the curse would lift when you caught sight of this ring.
KING [sighing with relief]. So—I am not to blame.
SHAKUNTALA [to herself]. It's good to know my husband didn't reject me for no reason at all. And yet I don't remember being cursed. Or perhaps it fell unnoticed through the emptiness of separation that engulfed me then. My friends did urge me to show the ring to my husband.
MARICA. Daughter, now you know the truth. Feel no resentment towards your lord:
When his memory was cursed,
Your husband was cruel to you,
But that darkness has lifted
And your power's renewed;
The mirror was tarnished,
The image obscure,
But with polishing
It all becomes clear.