Throughout Shakuntala, duty and love are closely intertwined. This connection is in keeping with the importance of dharma (duty) in Hindu practice at the time. Dharma, along with artha (material success) and kama (desire), was understood to be one of the primary goals of human existence, while the ultimate goal of that existence was to attain moksha, or liberation from worldly existence. In the play, there is particular tension between dharma and kama. The structure of the play—from opposition between duty and love during Shakuntala’s courtship, to failed efforts to harmonize them in the middle of the play, to reconciliation between them in the final act—suggests that reconciling the competing goals of human existence is a lifelong journey, but that when that struggle is faithfully undertaken, it eventually proceeds toward spiritual liberation.
Early in the play, love and duty are seen as being at odds with each other, and duty is even used as an excuse to pursue love. For example, when Dusyanta first sees Shakuntala, the king sees something incongruous about Shakuntala’s devotion to religious duty. To him, Shakuntala’s desirable physical beauty seems wasted in her life of ascetic striving. Meanwhile, Shakuntala’s first experience of passion seems to her to be incompatible with her lifelong religious piety. As soon as Dusyanta reveals himself in the ascetic grove, Shakuntala thinks, “But how can it have happened that, simply at the sight of this man, I am shaken with a passion so at odds with the religious life?”
Rather transparently, Dusyanta then uses his sacred royal duties (kings were to defend the oppressed, with special care for safeguarding the rites of religious practitioners) as a cover for romantic desire. He tells Shakuntala and her friends, “I have been appointed […] as Minister for Religious Welfare. And in that capacity I’ve come to this sacred forest to ensure your rituals are not obstructed in any way.” Dusyanta, here, is not actually connecting duty and love. Rather, he is using duty as a lie to pursue love. At this point, as described in the stage direction, Shakuntala “displays all the embarrassment of erotic attraction.” She apparently sees through Dusyanta’s ruse, and at any rate, she’s aware that her own religious devotion is more likely to be obstructed, not helped, by her attraction to this man!
Before leaving the grove, Dusyanta reflects to himself, “Suddenly, the city doesn’t seem so attractive […] The truth is, I can’t get Shakuntala out of my head.” Dusyanta’s responsibilities in the capital city no longer appeal to him, going against the grain of the erotic desire he now feels. Duty and desire, seemingly, don’t go together.
In the middle acts of the play, there’s a struggle to harmonize love and duty. In Act II, Dusyanta is asked to protect the ashram for a few nights in the sage Kanva’s absence. But no sooner has he agreed to this than a messenger arrives with a competing obligation, a request from his mother to participate in a ritual fast in the capital. “I have to weigh my duty to the ascetics against the request of a revered parent—and neither can be ignored.” He finally decides in favor of staying close to Shakuntala in the ashram, though he knows duty will eventually tear him away.
In Act III, Priyamvada somewhat coyly brings love and duty together by casting Shakuntala’s lovesickness in terms of the king’s duty: “They say it is the king’s duty to relieve the pain of those who live in his realm […] So, if you would save [Shakuntala’s] life, you must take her under your protection.” Dusyanta acts on this advice to contract a secret marriage with Shakuntala, trying to hastily circumvent any conflicts between his royal duties and his bride’s religious ones.
In Act IV, Anasuya worries that once the King returns to his capital, “who can say whether he’ll remember what’s happened in the forest?” While Anasuya means that Dusyanta’s passion might fade under the pressures of royal duty, the audience knows that Dusyanta will literally forget Shakuntala because of a curse. But even this literal forgetting can be seen, by extension, to symbolize the subordination of desire to duty. In fact, when Shakuntala journeys to reunite with Dusyanta in the capital, the busy king is pointedly described as “the guardian of the sacred and social orders;” in this realm, he proves unable to recognize her or desire’s claim on him.
In Act VI, he hears about the death of a childless merchant and is overcome with grief about his own (so he thinks) childlessness. Since he has no children, his own ancestors must be wondering, “Who will feed us in the afterlife / As he does now, if there is no heir?” In this context, having sons isn’t just a sign of earthly prosperity, but a guarantee that one’s forebears will continue to be honored in perpetuity. Put another way, in the creation of children, love and duty are intertwined. Thus Dusyanta’s lack of a child is a great shame for him, an indication of his failure in both duty and love.
In the play’s final act, love and duty finally achieve harmony. Indra’s charioteer interrupts Dusyanta’s grief with a summons to fulfill his kingly duty of demon-fighting, and Dusyanta is later rewarded for his work with a tour of the heavens in a winged chariot. They descend to the mountain of the demigods, where the sage Marica leads a life of asceticism. Here, Dusyanta discovers his son, Sarvadamana, which leads to his and Shakuntala’s recognition of one another. The three are finally united as a family unit, and their son, the fruit of their passion, is prophesied to become a world ruler—thus, the three of them together constitute the fulfillment of duty as well as of love, and all in a place oriented toward spiritual liberation. Harmony between duty and love is finally being achieved.
As Dusyanta prepares to return to his capital—the worldly realm of duty—with his wife and son, Marica blesses them: “And so let time and seasons pass / In mutual service, / A benefit to both our realms.” No longer is there tension between love and duty; they’ve been integrated, such that Dusyanta can fulfill his duties as husband, king, and religious devotee without a sense of strain or disharmony.
Duty vs. Love ThemeTracker
Duty vs. Love Quotes in Shakuntala
VAIKHANASA. King, this is a hermitage deer. You should not—you must not kill it!
Indeed, indeed, no missile should be shot,
Scorching, like a flame through velvet petals,
This young fawn’s tender head.
Alas, what is the filigree life
In this poor animal’s frame,
Beside the adamantine rain
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.
BOTH SEERS. The inhabitants of the ashram have learnt that Your Honor is here, and they have a request to make of you.
KING. Their wish is my command.
BOTH SEERS. They say that, owing to the absence of the great and revered sage Kanva, evil spirits are disrupting their rituals, and so they ask that you should come with your driver and protect the ashram for the next few nights.
KING. It's an honor to be asked.
VIDUSAKA [aside]. This couldn't be better if you'd planned it yourself.
BOTH SEERS [with delight].
And so you are at one with your ancestors:
For all the descendants of Puru are initiates
In that great sacrifice which protects
The afflicted and alleviates
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!
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?
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.
MATALI [looking at the king]. Your Majesty could sit at the foot of this ashoka tree, while I find the right moment to announce your arrival to Indra’s father.
KING. Whatever you advise. [He sits.]
MATALI. I shall go now. [He exits.]
KING [sensing an omen].
My desire is hopeless, yet this vein
Throbs in my arm—
Once abandoned, fortune
Is incessant pain.
OFF-STAGE VOICE. Don’t act so rashly! How he reverts to his nature!
KING [listening]. This is no place for uncontrolled behavior. Who can they be reprimanding? [Looking in the direction of the voice, surprised] Ah! And what kind of child is this, guarded by two female ascetics, and so much stronger than his years? […] Why am I drawn to this child, as though to my own son?
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.