We come to know of Shakuntala from two sources: Vyas' Mahabharat and Kalidas' poem Shakuntal. The Shakuntala depicted by Kalidas is a damsel in distress. An abalaa. With the introduction of the ring and Sage Durvas' curse, Kalidas tried to make Dushyant look innocent. Vyas' Shakuntala is a woman of courage and knowledge.
Shakuntala was born to Sage Vishwamitra and Menaka. Menaka abandoned the new born child. Shakuntala was raised by Sage Kanva, in his hermitage near the Mandakini river. Years later, King Puru's son Dushyant, wandered in the hermitage of Sage Kanwa. He met and fell in love with the beautiful Shakuntala. He learnt from Shakuntala that she was the daughter of the Kshatriya king Vishwamitra. (Knowing she was a Kshatriya, Dushyant requested her to marry him. Had she been a Brahmin, a daughter of Sage Kanva, as he had assumed, then their marriage would have been unacceptable.) Dushyant proposed to marry her there and then. He would'nt wait until the return of Sage Kanva, to ask for Shakuntala's hand. He warned Shakuntala that, if she did not marry him in the Gandharva style, as a Kshatriya, Dharma allowed him to marry her the Rakshas style.
Seeing she had no option, Shakuntala did some quick thinking and instead of just giving in, she got a promise for herself. She demanded that Dushyant would make the son born of Shakuntala, the crown prince. The obsessed Dushyant agreed to everything, and left the hermitage as soon as his wish was fulfilled. Probably afraid of Sage Kanva, Dushyant left before his arrival. He promised to send an envoy to take Shakuntala to Pratishthan.
Days passed into years. There was no sign of Dushyant's envoy. Meanwhile, Shakuntala's son Sarvadaman turned 8. Maybe during these years Shakuntala sent messages to Dushyant. Maybe she simply waited for Dushyant to arrive someday. Whatever be the case, Dushyant did not see, nor send for Shakuntala.
At last, Sage Kanva sent Shakuntala and Sarvadaman with few diciples to Pratishathan. When Shakuntala arrived at the courts of Dushyant, she introduced herself and her child. She reminded Dushyant of his promises and asked him to accept her as the queen and his son as the crown prince.
Dushyant refused to remember anything at all. He said, "You are a daughter of an Apsara. Who should believe in your character? I have never seen you in my life. And this child is certainly not mine! Go away, I do not know you!"
Aghast and angry, Shakuntala controlled herself. She replied, "O King! The most important thing in the world it is the truth. And you are lying, cause you think there was no witness to your deed. Your conciense is a witness.
"People wish and pray for a son. And you! When your own son is standing here, and you want to give up the joy in holding your child in your arms? Do not accept me if you wish so, but at least accept your child.
"And if you do not wish to accept your child, so be it. I shall go away with him. I shall see to it that he grows up into an emperor!"
The ministers in the court were impressed by her speech. They believed that she spoke the truth. Or, maybe they knew Dushyant too well to believe in him. Either because of his ministers pressure, or because of his conscience, Dushyant accepted Shakuntala and Sarvadaman.
Some editions of MB say, Dushyant later apologised to Shakuntala. Saying he had to disown her, or else people would think any damsel could claim to be Dushyant's wife, and he would accept her.
Whatever the case for Dushyant, Shakuntala is certainly the iron lady. Dushyant had used Shakuntala to quench his thirst. And when confronted he simply refused to recognize her. Shakuntala is not the only woman to be in such situation. But she is certainly the first woman, who proved her chastity. The first to win against her husband, the king, and the law giver! She fought a lone battle to clear her name. She did not have the support of any Valmiki to do so. And unlike Seeta, she did not end her life when her chastity was questioned. On the other hand she declared she didnt need her husbands support to raise an Emperor! Shakuntala stands out like a lighthouse to guide the young women who fall victim to men.
It is of course another story that the male dominated society suppressed Shakuntala as an abalaa and glorified the always submitting Seeta!