ALTER IAGO
by Marcia Eppich-Harris 

“The soul is as important as the sinews,” the orientation speaker had said on my first day of medical school. “Here at St. Hearthguard University, we believe that the best doctors are those who learn empathy and compassion. We will teach you hard science, yes. However, we will also strive to feed your souls.” I kept my face neutral, but internally I grimaced. Feed my soul? What if it’s not hungry?

The only class that fit my schedule was Shakespeare. In addition to Brain Development and Cell Biology, I would also be studying the human condition via the 16th and 17th centuries – back when they treated practically every disease with bloodletting. What cutting-edge curriculum! Our professor gave us seven plays to read, three of which were being performed by the local Repertory theatre: Othello, Richard II, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. We were required to attend the theatre. I asked a couple of girls in the Shakespeare class if they’d like to go to the shows with me. Make it a girls’ night.

“Fun!” Chloe said. “I’ll make us a reservation at Le Poisson Rouge, so we can have dinner before the play.”
“How expensive is it?” I asked, thinking about my meager savings.
“It’s moderate,” Chloe said.

Chloe drove a BMW, so I wondered what she considered to be moderate.

Le Poisson Rouge was the first restaurant I’d ever been to where you couldn’t substitute onion rings for fries. The wine glasses were huge, but the sommelier – a job I never knew existed – only filled them about an inch. I watched my companions’ behavior for cues. My etiquette training was about as sophisticated as eating baked beans from a can, but I managed not to spill anything on my black sweater and jeans skirt. I called it a win. 

Once we arrived at the theatre, I felt the next hurdle was going to be harder to jump. I opened the program to find a synopsis but landed on the cast photos. A picture of a man with curly dark hair grabbed my attention: James Giles as Iago. He wasn’t classically handsome, but his eyes were stunning – a dark circle outlined each of his pale irises. I stared at his eyes for too long; the lights dimmed.

The man whose picture I’d studied entered the scene. James Giles had a voice like silvery music. When he spoke about his general, Othello, passing him over for a promotion, I empathized. Iago was an outsider, trying to be an insider – just like me. I spent most of my time trying not to be an impostor. My soul and I had been waitlisted for medical school. It wasn’t until other accepted candidates had abandoned S.H.U. for the sanctity of the East Coast that I was admitted into the program.  Like Iago, I was no one’s first choice.

As the play went on and Iago showed his villainy, I felt I couldn’t help admiring his ingenious persuasion, despite his villainy. He spoke and moved with seductive charisma, enchanting Othello, and frankly, me, with his linguistic acumen. I’ve never been in love with a villain, I thought. But I want to wrap myself around this man.
 
At intermission, the stage went black, and the crowd relished the electric darkness for a moment before thundering into applause. The house lights came up, and my companions looked at me expectantly. I smiled like an idiot.

“What do you think?” Daphne asked, giggling at my expression.
I said. “I think I might be in love.”
“With Shakespeare?” Chloe asked.
“With Iago.” 
“I’m partial to Cassio myself, but Iago is okay,” Daphne conceded. 
 “His voice,” I said, “I’ve never heard anything like it. He could read Shakespeare to me anytime.” 

And I’d actually understand it, I thought. He made it seem easy.

“Why not try to meet him at the stage door afterward?” Chloe said.
I felt a kindling of hope. “Is it possible to meet the actors?”
“Yeah,” Daphne said. “I’ve done it loads of times. Why not?”

When the show resumed, I felt sorry for Othello and Desdemona, the victims of my glorious villain, but Iago’s manipulation, while pathological, wasn’t nonsensical. After all, if you work hard, do all the right things, and then you still get shoved aside, it drives you insane. My professor had given us a different interpretation of the character entirely. But knowing how I felt about my past rejections, and seeing the way James Giles played Iago, I understood the character in a totally different light.
At the curtain call, I leaped to my feet when James reentered for his applause. My sudden flight caught his eye, and he smiled in my direction just before bowing. I clapped so hard that my hands burned. Is this what it meant to have your soul fed? I had never reacted so strongly to any other encounter with the arts, but then again, I had never experienced an actor as smooth and thrilling as James.

I pulled Daphne close to be heard over the cacophony.

“Where do I go to meet him?” I asked her.

We threaded our way through the buzzing patrons. Outside the stage door, around fifteen people stood patiently in line, waiting for their favorite actors to re-enter society as mere mortals. I planted myself at the end of the line, my heart throbbing with anticipation. I did what I always do in nerve-wracking situations – I listed the elements on the Periodic Table in my head. Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon…

Chloe and Daphne talked about the play and the garish lighting of Desdemona’s murder scene. Garish lighting? I hadn’t even noticed. While they analyzed, my mind slipped from elements to think about all the things I could do with the actor playing Iago on that gauze-curtained bed. This is so unlike me. I started over, Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium…

Eventually, the man playing Othello exited the stage door and started signing programs, and then, out walked James Giles. My stomach twisted with excitement, and he followed Othello’s suit, signing programs down the line of admirers. When he finally came to me, Iago – James Giles – held my stare without saying a word, and I smiled with rapture. His eyes turned out to be pale blue inside those dark outlines, and up close, I could smell a faint whiff of cologne mixed with sweat.

“Hi,” he said.

I handed him my program, saying, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of you when you were on stage. You were perfect.”

He laughed and wrote a sweeping signature on the cast page.

“Thank you,” he said. “Most people don’t like the villain.”
“I loved Iago,” I said. “He was the smartest person in the whole play.”
“She means, ‘the sexiest,’” Chloe said over my shoulder. I reddened with embarrassment.

James/Iago looked at me, assessing my reaction.

“Any interest in a drink?” he asked. “Some of us are heading to the bar around the corner. It’s called Red’s.”

I looked at the girls, and they nodded encouragement.

“We’ll meet you there,” I said.
 
When we were settled in with drinks, James leaned in to be heard over our friends and the jazz band in the back of the bar. 

“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Annie,” I said. “Annie Stephens. I’m a med student at St. Hearthguard.”
“Medicine?” he said. “That’s a great career for donating to the arts.”

I laughed. “I think that’s what S.H.U. is doing with their new program. They’re making med students take classes in the arts, so our ‘souls will be fed,’” I made quote marks with my fingers. “And then maybe we’ll feed artists, too.”

“We do make hungry where most we satisfy.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
“Well, that’s Shakespeare, anyway. He gives me my best lines.”
“I’d never seen a Shakespeare play on stage before,” I said. “Now, I think I’m in love.”
            “It makes a difference seeing it. I didn’t have a wealthy family growing up. We didn’t even have cable. I watched PBS all the time. I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear on there once with Ian McKellen –”
            “Gandalf?” I asked, surprised.
            “Yeah, he’s a great Shakespearean,” he said.
“I had no idea.”
“A lot of great Shakespearean actors that are famous for other things – Patrick Stewart –”
“Professor X?”
“Ian McDiarmid–”
“The Emperor in Star Wars?”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Anyway, when I saw Gandalf as Lear, I thought, ‘I know what I want to do with my life.’ So I started acting in high school and continued in college.”
“That’s so great.”
“It is now,” he said. “My first paying gig as an actor wasn’t so great.”
He told me about seeing an ad for open auditions in college. It said, “Actors will be paid,” but when he received his contract, the stipend was only $25.
“So I was ‘paid,’” he said. “But not a living wage or anything.”
“Talk about false advertising,” I said.
“Yeah, it wasn’t even a clever, like ‘Red Bull gives you wings.’”
“Right,” I said. “Who would ever be stupid enough to believe they’d sprout literal wings by drinking Red Bull?”

My idiot boyfriend in college did, actually, I remembered, but I kept it to myself.

“I had to be a lot more critical about auditions after that. I had to pay rent, you know? It took a few years before I stopped worrying about that constantly.”
“Med students still have to worry about that,” I said.
“Well, sacrifices pay off sometimes. It doesn’t make it any less hard, though.”  
I immediately felt more comfortable with him than I did Daphne and Chloe. I was surprised how relaxed his off-stage persona was compared to his bad-boy Iago. As Iago faded and James came into focus, the manipulating villain vanished, leaving behind a genuine, interesting, sweet alter ego – alter Iago – James.
“I have to see Richard II and Two Gentlemen of Verona, too,” I said. “Are you going to be in those plays?”
“Yeah. Iago is my big role this season, though. In Richard II, I play Henry Percy. He’s more commonly known as ‘Hotspur.’”
Appropriate, I thought.
“Then, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, I’m playing a servant character named Launce.”
“Which role do you like best?”
“Oddly enough, I think I like Launce the best, even though it’s a smaller role.”
“Why is that?”
            “Well, he’s funny, for one. But he’s also the only character in all of Shakespeare’s plays that has a dog – like, actually on stage, there’s a dog.”
“Are you a dog person?”
“I like dogs,” he said. “But the thing I like about Launce is how much he’s willing to sacrifice for this animal. He takes a beating, so the dog won’t be punished. He sits in the stocks for him. It’s incredible. Launce isn’t smart like Iago, or valiant like Hotspur, but Launce has integrity, you know? He’d do anything to protect the one he loves.”
“I thought you’d be more like Iago,” I said with mock disappointment.
“You like the bad-boy type?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Not usually,” I said.
“Sorry for the false advertising,” he said, putting his hand on mine. “I know how disappointing it can be.”
“I might be able to get over it,” I said, inching closer to him. 
            The next day, Daphne ran up to me before class.
“So?” she asked. “I noticed you ducked out last night without saying goodbye.”
            “Yeah, sorry,” I replied. “I had to work on a class – Soul Cultivation 101.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” she grinned. “Aren’t you more into the hard sciences?”
“Yes, today I’m running an experiment on how long a medical student can stay awake after being up all night with a gorgeous actor.”
“Let me know how that goes.” 
Four years later, James and I got married on that stage where he’d played Iago. Shakespeare provided the readings for our wedding, but it was the actor behind the words that truly fed my soul.

About the Author:

Marcia Eppich-Harris writes fiction, plays, and poetry. Her fiction most recently appeared in Furtive Dalliance, The Breakroom Stories, The Bookends Reviews, and Mused. A full list of her publications can be found at www.meppichharris.com.

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