Throughout Shakuntala, supernatural beings like gods and nymphs, powerful utterances like sages’ prophecies and curses, and even bodily omens experienced by the main characters are ever-present. In fact, none of the main events would take place if it weren’t for such supernatural interventions into human events. Such interventions appear to work outside the limits of human plans and intentions, suggesting that, in the play, they’re meant to signal to audiences the inscrutability—and inevitability— of divine plans.
Prophecy frames the entire play—specifically, the prophecy that Dusyanta will father a world emperor. When Dusyanta refrains from shooting the deer belonging to the hermitage, one of the forest-dwelling ascetics voices the prophetic wish, “Great Lord of the Lunar Dynasty, / May you have a son / With all your virtues, / Destined to rule the world.” Dusyanta merely thanks the brahmin at the time, not thinking much about it.
At the end of the play, however, when Dusyanta sees the little boy, Sarvadamana, playing with a lion cub in Marica’s realm, he notices the marks of a world ruler on the boy’s body. When his paternity of the child is established, the brahmin’s prediction at the very beginning of the play is likewise confirmed. Therefore, the play’s entire sequence of events—from Dusyanta’s detour into the hermitage, to his marriage to Shakuntala, to Shakuntala’s removal to the celestial realm—is shown to have been directed toward a specific, higher purpose—namely, the future emperor’s birth and celestial upbringing.
In a similar way, the central drama of the play is driven by a curse that estranges the heroic couple, but ultimately can’t prevent their spiritually powerful reunion. The reason Shakuntala and the King initially meet is because her father, the sage Kanva, who would normally have met the King, is not at home, because he has gone on a pilgrimage “to appease the gods on her behalf, and avert her hostile fate.” Though this fate is not named, it’s presumably the curse that will soon be pronounced against Shakuntala by Durvasas. When Shakuntala, distracted after Dusyanta has returned to the business of the capital, accidentally slights the short-tempered sage, he utters: “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.” If Shakuntala hadn’t been distracted by lovesickness and accidentally offended the sage, this curse wouldn’t have been spoken. Yet if her father hadn’t had some premonition of the curse and gone on pilgrimage to avert it, she wouldn’t have been home alone to meet and fall in love with Dusyanta in the first place. When the curse goes into effect, it results in the couple’s agonizing yet spiritually fruitful separation—and ultimately leads to their more triumphant reunion in the celestial realm. Like the prophecy of their son’s birth, the curse reverberates across time, seemingly out of proportion to the event that prompted it. These seemingly unavoidable sequences of events suggest that supernatural pronouncements like curses don’t operate according to human intention and can lead to greater consequences (even good ones) than anyone foresees.
Audiences watching Shakuntala would likely have been familiar with the cultural meanings behind prophecies, curses, and many other supernatural signs, like evil omens, that occur in the play. But even without that familiarity, the complexity of these recurring, overlapping signs in the play shows that there are mysterious powers at work, which bring about events much bigger than the mundane circumstances in which they first appear.
Prophecies and Curses ThemeTracker
Prophecies and Curses 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…
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.