Śakuntalā Themes

The three main themes in Śakuntalā are love conquers all, love versus duty, and concealment and loss.

  • Love conquers all: The love between Śakuntalā and Dushyanta is able to overcome a curse, the trials of time and separation, and even death itself.
  • Love versus dutyŚakuntalā demonstrates the ways in which the lovers’ respective duties interfere with their being together.
  • Concealment and loss: Concealment and loss both present difficulties for the lovers in Śakuntalā, from the concealment of the lovers’ identities to the loss of the ring.

Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Love Conquers All

Śakuntalā is a classic romantic myth. The entire story is a clash between the love of Śakuntalā and Dushyanta on one side, and forces that seek to separate them on the other. Ultimately, their love is able to overcome a curse, the trials of time and separation, and even death itself. This is an archetypal example of the idea of love conquering all. A major function of Śakuntalā is to construct a mystical, legendary backdrop for the birth of Bharata and his dynasty. His birth and return to earth is the culmination of Dushyanta and Śakuntalā's love and the trials they faced to be together.

Love Versus Duty

Śakuntalā demonstrates the way in which the lovers' duties interfere with their being together. From the beginning, Dushyanta is presented as a king who is disregarding his duties in order to hunt and relax. It is in this context that he finds and falls in love with Śakuntalā, but his kingly duties start to pull him away from her. She, meanwhile, is pulled away from her duties as she falls in love with Dushyanta, which leads to her neglecting to feed the visiting sage and thus offending him. The sage curses her, introducing the main obstacle to Śakuntalā and Dushyanta's love. The play does not condemn the lovers for forgetting their duties, but it does make clear that there are major consequences for doing so and that there are real tensions between the lovers' priorities: their love for each other and their respective roles in society.

Concealment and Loss

Concealment and loss both present difficulties for the lovers in Kālidāsa's play. Dushyanta is hiding when he first sees Śakuntalā and initially introduces himself not as the king but as one of the king's companions, while Śakuntalā's true identity as a water nymph is initially concealed from him. The curse which prevents Dushyanta from recognizing Śakuntalā and Śakuntalā's loss of the identifying ring given to her by Dushyanta add further layers to the tale. Readers can draw different ideas from this series of concealments. One is the way in which the king might have difficulty finding genuine love given his position, and he might feel it helpful to conceal it so that others react to him more honestly. Dushyanta's failure to recognize Śakuntalā also allows the play to explore the anxiety of love while still having the characters truly love each other. This allows for the play to take a short tragic turn and then resolve with a happy ending. Ultimately, love finds a way, as Dushyanta, Śakuntalā, and their son, Bharata, are brought together by the gods.

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