Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313
The protagonist, Śakuntalā, is a beautiful maiden. Adopted by the leader of her hermitage, Kanwa, she is a water nymph, the daughter of a royal sage and a celestial nymph. Śakuntalā is kind, loyal, resourceful, and full of emotion. From the beginning of the play, she is depicted as an object of sexual desire. But we also see her undertake a journey to be with the king, Dushyanta; process the pain of being rejected when he fails to recognize her; raise their son, Bharata, with him for a time; and then experience the joy of being reunited with her husband when he finally recognizes her. The play rides on the performance of Śakuntalā, whose lines are full of poetry and deep emotion.
Dushyanta, the king, is Śakuntalā's love and the male lead. He is shown primarily as a lover, willing to let his duties wait while he spends time with Śakuntalā at the beginning of the play. But he is not necessarily depicted as a bad king. He wrestles with what to do when he doesn't recognize Śakuntalā, rather than immediately dismissing the possibility that what she says might be true. He leads his people to war, and the gods are ultimately pleased with him. Still, it is clear that he is quite concerned with his image and with the class system and values of his time. When he believes Śakuntalā to be a commoner, he seeks to hide their relationship, and he is only willing to publicly claim her as his beloved when he learns that she is actually of high birth.
Durvasa is a sage who angrily curses Śakuntalā when she is distracted by love and fails to offer him food upon his arrival at the hermitage. He introduces the main conflict to the plot and therefore serves as the antagonist, though he only briefly appears in the play.