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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Śakuntalā (also known as The Recognition of Śakuntalā, or The Fatal Ring) was written in Sanskrit by the great Indian poet Kālidāsa, most likely in the fourth century CE. The play is based on the Mahabharata, the longest known epic poem. While the Mahabharata is more concerned with Bharata, Kālidāsa expands on a brief section about his parents, Śakuntalā and Dushyanta, to give us this tale. Śakuntalā has been translated more than forty-six times; due to this, the text and title vary between editions.

Śakuntalā is a classic, archetypal romantic myth, with strong resemblance to the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Its fourth-wall-breaking prologue is remarkable and influenced later theatrical works, including Goethe's Faust. In the prologue, an actor acting as the director of the play has an exchange with the actor playing Śakuntalā in which he doubts the quality of the performance they will be able to put on, and she assures him in song that the performance will be incredible. This theatrical daring, along with the play's many translations into various languages, works to make Śakuntalā one of the better known pieces of Sanskrit literature in the West.

Although it is difficult for translators to capture the full flavor of the original Sanskrit text, even in English Śakuntalā is full of lyric power and vivid imagery. In a combination of poetry and prose, Kālidāsa describes the great love Śakuntalā and Dushyanta have for each other, the pain and suffering Śakuntalā faces when she's rejected, and the joy Śakuntalā and Dushyanta experience when they are finally reunited.

Śakuntalā functions in large part as the mythical backdrop to the birth of Bharata, the legendary emperor and ancestor to the Pandavadas and Kauravas whose exploits are told in the Mahabharata. By expanding on the story of Bharata, Kālidāsa interweaves his drama with the mythic history set down in the Mahabharata. It is this mythic resonance combined with a high level of literary craftsmanship which grants Śakuntalā its status as a deeply important mythic play.

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