Kalidasa probably lived in the fifth century of the Christian era. This date, approximate as it is, must yet be given with considerable hesitation, and is by no means certain. No truly biographical data are preserved about the author, who nevertheless enjoyed a great popularity during his life, and whom the Hindus have ever regarded as the greatest of Sanskrit poets. We are thus confronted with one of the remarkable problems of literary history. For our ignorance is not due to neglect of Kalidasa’s writings on the part of his countrymen, but to their strange blindness in regard to the interest and importance of historic fact. No European nation can compare with India in critical devotion to its own literature. During a period to be reckoned not by centuries but by millenniums, there has been in India an unbroken line of savants unselfishly dedicated to the perpetuation and exegesis of the native masterpieces. Editions, recensions, commentaries abound; poets have sought the exact phrase of appreciation for their predecessors: yet when we seek to reconstruct the life of their greatest poet, we have no materials except certain tantalising legends, and such data as we can gather from the writings of a man who hardly mentions himself.
THE STORY OF SHAKUNTALA
In the first book of the vast epic poem Mahabharata, Kalidasa found the story of Shakuntala. The story has a natural place there, for Bharata, Shakuntala’s son, is the eponymous ancestor of the princes who play the leading part in the epic.
With no little abbreviation of its epic breadth, the story runs as follows:—
THE EPIC TALE
Once that strong-armed king, with a mighty host of men and chariots, entered a thick wood. Then when the king had slain thousands of wild creatures, he entered another wood with his troops and his chariots, intent on pursuing a deer. And the king beheld a wonderful, beautiful hermitage on the bank of the sacred river Malini; on its bank was the beautiful hermitage of blessèd, high-souled Kanva, whither the great sages resorted. Then the king determined to enter, that he might see the great sage Kanva, rich in holiness. He laid aside the insignia of royalty and went on alone, but did not see the austere sage in the hermitage. Then, when he did not see the sage, and perceived that the hermitage was deserted, he cried aloud, “Who is here?” until the forest seemed to shriek. Hearing his cry, a maiden, lovely as Shri, came from the hermitage, wearing a hermit garb. “Welcome!” she said at once, greeting him, and smilingly added: “What may be done for you?” Then the king said to the sweet-voiced maid: “I have come to pay reverence to the holy sage Kanva. Where has the blessèd one gone, sweet girl? Tell me this, lovely maid.” Shakuntala said: “My blessèd father has gone from the hermitage to gather fruits. Wait a moment. You shall see him when he returns.”
The king did not see the sage, but when the lovely girl of the fair hips and charming smile spoke to him, he saw that she was radiant in her beauty, yes, in her hard vows and self-restraint all youth and beauty, and he said to her:
“Who are you? Whose are you, lovely maiden? Why did you come to the forest? Whence are you, sweet girl, so lovely and so good? Your beauty stole my heart at the first glance. I wish to know you better. Answer me, sweet maid.”
The maiden laughed when thus questioned by the king in the hermitage, and the words she spoke were very sweet: “O Dushyanta, I am known as blessed Kanva’s daughter, and he is austere, steadfast, wise, and of a lofty soul.”
Dushyanta said: “But he is chaste, glorious maid, holy, honoured by the world. Though virtue should swerve from its course, he would not swerve from the hardness of his vow. How were you born his daughter, for you are beautiful? I am in great perplexity about this. Pray remove it.”
[Shakuntala here explains how she is the child of a sage and a nymph, deserted at birth, cared for by birds (shakuntas), found and reared by Kanva, who gave her the name Shakuntala.]
Dushyanta said: “You are clearly a king’s daughter, sweet maiden, as you say. Become my lovely wife. Tell me, what shall I do for you? Let all my kingdom be yours to-day. Become my wife, sweet maid.”
Shakuntala said: “Promise me truly what I say to you in secret. The son that is born to me must be your heir. If you promise, Dushyanta, I will marry you.”
“So be it,” said the king without thinking, and added: “I will bring you too to my city, sweet-smiling girl.
So the king took the faultlessly graceful maiden by the hand and dwelt with her. And when he had bidden her be of good courage, he went forth, saying again and again: “I will send a complete army for you, and tell them to bring my sweet-smiling bride to my palace.” When he had made this promise, the king went thoughtfully to find Kanva. “What will he do when he hears it, this holy, austere man?” he wondered, and still thinking, he went back to his capital.
Now the moment he was gone, Kanva came to the hermitage. And Shakuntala was ashamed and did not come to meet her father. But blessed, austere Kanva had divine discernment. He discovered her, and seeing the matter with celestial vision, he was pleased and said: “What you have done, dear, to-day, forgetting me and meeting a man, this does not break the law. A man who loves may marry secretly the woman who loves him without a ceremony; and Dushyanta is virtuous and noble, the best of men. Since you have found a loving husband, Shakuntala, a noble son shall be born to you, mighty in the world.”
Sweet Shakuntala gave birth to a boy of unmeasured prowess. His hands were marked with the wheel, and he quickly grew to be a glorious boy. As a six years’ child in Kanva’s hermitage he rode on the backs of lions, tigers, and boars near the hermitage, and tamed them, and ran about playing with them. Then those who lived in Kanva’s hermitage gave him a name. “Let him be called All-tamer,” they said: “for he tames everything.”
But when the sage saw the boy and his more than human deeds, he said to Shakuntala: “It is time for him to be anointed crown prince.” When he saw how strong the boy was, Kanva said to his pupils: “Quickly bring my Shakuntala and her son from my house to her husband’s palace. A long abiding with their relatives is not proper for married women. It destroys their reputation, and their character, and their virtue; so take her without delay.” “We will,” said all the mighty men, and they set out with Shakuntala and her son for Gajasahvaya.
When Shakuntala drew near, she was recognised and invited to enter, and she said to the king: “This is your son, O King. You must anoint him crown prince, just as you promised before, when we met.”
When the king heard her, although he remembered her, he said: “I do not remember. To whom do you belong, you wicked hermit-woman? I do not remember a union with you for virtue, love, and wealth.  Either go or stay, or do whatever you wish.”
When he said this, the sweet hermit-girl half fainted from shame and grief, and stood stiff as a pillar. Her eyes darkened with passionate indignation; her lips quivered; she seemed to consume the king as she gazed at him with sidelong glances. Concealing her feelings and nerved by anger, she held in check the magic power that her ascetic life had given her. She seemed to meditate a moment, overcome by grief and anger. She gazed at her husband, then spoke passionately: “O shameless king, although you know, why do you say, ‘I do not know,’ like any other ordinary man?”
Dushyanta said: “I do not know the son born of you, Shakuntala. Women are liars. Who will believe what you say? Are you not ashamed to say these incredible things, especially in my presence? You wicked hermit-woman, go!”
Shakuntala said: “O King, sacred is holy God, and sacred is a holy promise. Do not break your promise, O King. Let your love be sacred. If you cling to a lie, and will not believe, alas! I must go away; there is no union with a man like you. For even without you,
Dushyanta, my son shall rule this foursquare earth adorned with kingly mountains.”
When she had said so much to the king, Shakuntala started to go. But a bodiless voice from heaven said to Dushyanta: “Care for your son, Dushyanta. Do not despise Shakuntala. You are the boy’s father. Shakuntala tells the truth.”
When he heard the utterance of the gods, the king joyfully said to his chaplain and his ministers: “Hear the words of this heavenly messenger. If I had received my son simply because of her words, he would be suspected by the world, he would not be pure.”
Then the king received his son gladly and joyfully. He kissed his head and embraced him lovingly. His wife also Dushyanta honoured, as justice required. And the king soothed her, and said: “This union which I had with you was hidden from the world. Therefore I hesitated, O Queen, in order to save your reputation. And as for the cruel words you said to me in an excess of passion, these I pardon you, my beautiful, great-eyed darling, because you love me.”
Then King Dushyanta gave the name Bharata to Shakuntala’s son, and had him anointed crown prince.
It is plain that this story contains the material for a good play; the very form of the epic tale is largely dramatic. It is also plain, in a large way, of what nature are the principal changes which a dramatist must introduce in the original. For while Shakuntala is charming in the epic story, the king is decidedly contemptible. Somehow or other, his face must be saved.
To effect this, Kalidasa has changed the old story in three important respects. In the first place, he introduces the curse of Durvasas, clouding the king’s memory, and saving him from moral responsibility in his rejection of Shakuntala. That there may be an ultimate recovery of memory, the curse is so modified as to last only until the king shall see again the ring which he has given to his bride. To the Hindu, curse and modification are matters of frequent occurrence; and Kalidasa has so delicately managed the matter as not to shock even a modern and Western reader with a feeling of strong improbability. Even to us it seems a natural part of the divine cloud that envelops the drama, in no way obscuring human passion, but rather giving to human passion an unwonted largeness and universality.
In the second place, the poet makes Shakuntala undertake her journey to the palace before her son is born. Obviously, the king’s character is thus made to appear in a better light, and a greater probability is given to the whole story.
The third change is a necessary consequence of the first; for without the curse, there could have been no separation, no ensuing remorse, and no reunion.
But these changes do not of themselves make a drama out of the epic tale. Large additions were also necessary, both of scenes and of characters. We find, indeed, that only acts one and five, with a part of act seven, rest upon the ancient text, while acts two, three, four, and six, with most of seven, are a creation of the poet. As might have been anticipated, the acts of the former group are more dramatic, while those of the latter contribute more of poetical charm. It is with these that scissors must be chiefly busy when the play—rather too long for continuous presentation as it stands—is performed on the stage.
In the epic there are but three characters—Dushyanta, Shakuntala, Kanva, with the small boy running about in the background. To these Kalidasa has added from the palace, from the hermitage, and from the Elysian region which is represented with vague precision in the last act.
The conventional clown plays a much smaller part in this play than in the others which Kalidasa wrote. He has also less humour. The real humorous relief is given by the fisherman and the three policemen in the opening scene of the sixth act. This, it may be remarked, is the only scene of rollicking humour in Kalidasa’s writing.
The forest scenes are peopled with quiet hermit-folk. Far the most charming of these are Shakuntala’s girl friends. The two are beautifully differentiated: Anusuya grave, sober; Priyamvada vivacious, saucy; yet wonderfully united in friendship and in devotion to Shakuntala, whom they feel to possess a deeper nature than theirs.
Kanva, the hermit-father, hardly required any change from the epic Kanva. It was a happy thought to place beside him the staid, motherly Gautami. The small boy in the last act has magically become an individual in Kalidasa’s hands. In this act too are the creatures of a higher world, their majesty not rendered too precise.
Dushyanta has been saved by the poet from his epic shabbiness; it may be doubted whether more has been done. There is in him, as in some other Hindu heroes, a shade too much of the meditative to suit our ideal of more alert and ready manhood.
But all the other characters sink into insignificance beside the heroine. Shakuntala dominates the play. She is actually on the stage in five of the acts, and her spirit pervades the other two, the second and the sixth. Shakuntala has held captive the heart of India for fifteen hundred years, and wins the love of increasing thousands in the West; for so noble a union of sweetness with strength is one of the miracles of art.
Though lovely women walk the world to-day By tens of thousands, there is none so fair In all that exhibition and display With her most perfect beauty to compare—
because it is a most perfect beauty of soul no less than of outward form. Her character grows under our very eyes. When we first meet her, she is a simple maiden, knowing no greater sorrow than the death of a favourite deer; when we bid her farewell, she has passed through happy love, the mother’s joys and pains, most cruel humiliation and suspicion, and the reunion with her husband, proved at last not to have been unworthy. And each of these great experiences has been met with a courage and a sweetness to which no words can render justice.
Kalidasa has added much to the epic tale; yet his use of the original is remarkably minute. A list of the epic suggestions incorporated in his play is long. But it is worth making, in order to show how keen is the eye of genius. Thus the king lays aside the insignia of royalty upon entering the grove (Act I). Shakuntala appears in hermit garb, a dress of bark (Act I). The quaint derivation of the heroine’s name from shakunta—bird—is used with wonderful skill in a passage (Act VII) which defies translation, as it involves a play on words. The king’s anxiety to discover whether the maiden’s father is of a caste that permits her to marry him is reproduced (Act I). The marriage without a ceremony is retained (Act IV), but robbed of all offence. Kanva’s celestial vision, which made it unnecessary for his child to tell him of her union with the king, is introduced with great delicacy (Act IV). The curious formation of the boy’s hand which indicated imperial birth adds to the king’s suspense (Act VII). The boy’s rough play with wild animals is made convincing (Act VII) and his very nickname All-tamer is preserved (Act VII). Kanva’s worldly wisdom as to husband and wife dwelling together is reproduced (Act IV). No small part of the give-and-take between the king and Shakuntala is given (Act V), but with a new dignity.
Of the construction of the play I speak with diffidence. It seems admirable to me, the apparently undue length of some scenes hardly constituting a blemish, as it was probably intended to give the actors considerable latitude of choice and excision. Several versions of the text have been preserved; it is from the longer of the two more familiar ones that the translation in this volume has been made. In the warm discussion over this matter, certain technical arguments of some weight have been advanced in favour of this choice; there is also a more general consideration which seems to me of importance. I find it hard to believe that any lesser artist could pad such a masterpiece, and pad it all over, without making the fraud apparent on almost every page. The briefer version, on the other hand, might easily grow out of the longer, either as an acting text, or as a school-book.
We cannot take leave of Shakuntala in any better way than by quoting the passage  in which Lévi’s imagination has conjured up “the memorable première when Shakuntala saw the light, in the presence of Vikramaditya and his court.”
The Hindu equivalent of “for better, for worse.”
Le Théatre Indien, pages 368-371. This is without competition the best work in which any part of the Sanskrit literature has been treated, combining erudition, imagination, and taste. The book is itself literature of a high order. The passage is unfortunately too long to be quoted entire.