Othello’s Ancient

So here’s a question about Iago, maybe somebody familiar with the history of the play (specifically the military aspect) can answer.
I’d always assumed, based on their number of interactions, that Iago was something of a “right hand man” to Othello. A high ranking officer, who’d been in a position to compete for promotion(1) with Cassio – and lost.
However, when I went looking up that word that Iago is always called – Othello’s “ancient(2)” – doesn’t mean what I think it means. Inconceivable.
“Ancient” apparently means something along the lines of “flag-bearer”, if I’m reading the resources correctly? is that true? Doesn’t that seem like it would be … I don’t know, a fairly minor rank? Independent of the play, if somebody asked me whether flag-bearers were typically friends with generals, I’d have to say “no way”. I guess I’d always just assumed that ancient meant something more akin to how Jean Luc Picard always used to call Riker his “number 1”. Shows what I know. Nobody’s actually trusting what I say here, right? 🙂
(1) Props to the one summary site I visited that told me ancient is “a rank below lieutenant”, one of those answers that is simultaneously exactly right (since we know he was not *promoted* to that rank, he must be below it) and yet completely useless.
(2) On one of those “we’ll sell you a Shakespeare essay” sites I stumbled across, it said that Iago “pretended to be Othello’s ancient”, showing a pretty bad misunderstanding of the character.

10 thoughts on “Othello’s Ancient

  1. I read something on this just recently, but I looked it up to be sure. As a military title it's used in not just in Othello, but also in both Henry IV plays, and in Henry V. It is indeed a step down from lieutenant – it goes ancients, corporals, and lieutenants. It's basically the equivalent to an "ensign," who did indeed originally carry the standard into battle. Ensigns were usually young men of noble stock – it was quite an honor to carry the standard – but sometimes men could attain the office by deeds of bravery. It's the lowest form of commissioned officer.

  2. Sorry to add confusion. I think generally JM's answer is the accepted one. I was just pointing out the historical nature of the office – which indeed might lead one to think Iago's younger.

    But there is a lot of history in the British army of Ensigns who aged in their post without promotion – in England, promotion came through either bravery or bribery. So a man could languish in his post for years, if he had neither the courage nor the cash to raise himself higher. And think how bitter a man in his thirties might be if everyone else of his rank was in their twenties, or even teens. A lot to think about.

  3. Remember Iago tells Roderigo in Act I,"I have looked upon the world for four times seven years", and so is meant to be younger than most of the actors cast in the part (Ewan McGregor being a recent exception to that i.e. he could pass for that age ).

  4. Except when Ewan McGregor played Iago, they changed the line to "five times seven years". I believe Conrad Nelson did the same for the WYP production starring Lenny Henry 🙂

  5. Although it can literally mean "ensign" or "standard-bearer", it can also mean most experienced, renowned, time-honored, time-worn, and thus, most experienced and therefore, the one who is a most trusted advisor. Iago claims to be as much, and Othello responds to him, to his own detriment, as though he is, and has been, regardless of his actual standing in the ranks proper.

  6. Now I'm more confused. JM's post made sense (that it means both) if I imagined a standard-bearer as a lifetime solder, someone who'd been around forever and earned the trust and respect of his commanding officer.

    But David's answer suggests that it is a rank for young men, who by definition would be unlikely to have much experience.

    Since you said "corporal" I get an immediate image in my mind of Radar O'Reilly from the old MASH tv series. A young guy with no life experience to be sure, but also a vital part of the organization, someone who was right in the middle of running things, someone you could easily see always being in the right place at the right time just by nature of his office. Naturally every time Colonel Potter or Hawkeye turned around, there was Radar to bounce some ideas off of.

    It changes my thoughts about Iago to think of him like this. I've always thought of him as one of Othello's most senior men, only more like a #3 instead of a #2 because Cassio stole that spot. But if that's the case, Othello's pretty stupid for not seeing Iago for what he really is.

    However, if you imagine Iago as a younger, minor officer – someone that Othello starts off talking *at*, rather than *to*, it changes their relationship. At first he's little more than a random soldier who happens to have Othello's attention, for whatever reason. But as he's always there, feeding Othello the information he needs to hear, Othello trusts him more and seeks him out, assigns him jobs and so on.

    That's all just off the top of my head, I've never really studied the play in depth so there could be many reasons why it can't be interpreted like that. Or maybe that's the way the rest of the world has always seen it and I'm just catching up.

    (Reminds me of a similar argument I posed once re: Kent, in Lear. Kent could be an old man who has served Lear all his life, or he could be a young man who has the guts to stand up to the king when he sees the king doing the wrong thing. Then somebody pointed out to me that Kent actually states his own age in the play. Oh, well :)).

  7. The ensign's role in battle was also to be the sign of the general, the fact that the general still stood. So in battle, that is the man who literally had the back of the general. Whereas the lieutenant was the one who you left to keep command over a conquered area. To keep the peace, the tenant in lieu of the general. Considering the general temperament of Cassio and Iago, and also the esteem Othello holds them each in, their alotted ranks seem to make sense. Strategically, it does. The misjudgement is in their character.

  8. would the ancients according to the bible mean perhaps the senate at the time, or a centurion with the order to carry out disciplinary orders as in following rank authority. as in following the spirit of the letter of the law? whereby Christ upon His death the King ordered that it be written on His cross "King of Kings and Lord of Lords. being the first to lead humanity into all truth concerning the spirit. and yet perserving its ripeful intent for a future time until its interpritation had fully been established? As in our Constitution? Which gives warranty as long as it is in affect to secure life, liberty, and the rights to ones enjoyment as partakers thereof. As when we pledge alledgence to the flag. As Abraham Lincoln made it an example at the end of the civil war. By having both pledge alledgience together, summing up the end between neighbors. as a treaty so to speak. Which was actually his back up plan in case of rebellion. please excuse my rush of words if out of content. im being rushed here. thankyou and please give me some feedback please.

  9. “Standard-bearer” perhaps, but most likely Iago would be Othello’s adjutant, usually in charge of passing orders to unit commanders – in other words, a lackey officer who would be at Othello’s right hand but by no means in any position of trusted advisor.

    I think the best definition of “ancient” is “adjutant”.

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