The title of Vladimir Nabokov’s work of short fiction titled “That in Aleppo Once” clearly alludes to the famous closing speech made by Othello at the conclusion of William Shakespeare’s very well-known tragedy Othello. By the time Othello makes this speech, he has been duped and maddened by the trickery of the evil schemer, Iago, who has managed to make Othello almost insanely suspicious of Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Thanks to the doubts sowed by Iago, Othello assumes that Desdemona is cheating on him with Othello’s own lieutenant, Cassio, a good man whom Iago despises. Ultimately, Othello strangles Desdemona in their bed, realizing only after her death that he has made a horrible mistake not only in killing her but in judging her so wrongly.
In his famous final speech, he reminds the Venetians who have come to apprehend him that he has long been a loyal servant and officer of Venice. He asks the assembled persons, when they relate the story of his tragedy, to describe him as “one that lov’d not wisely but too well” (5.7.344), and he asks them also to
. . . say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,
And smote his – thus. [He stabs himself] (5.7.352-56)
Othello, in other words, punishes himself at least as violently as (if not more violently than) he punished the non-Christian who once insulted Venice. Othello believes that he deserves to die for having killed Desdemona and also for having failed in his responsibilities to Venice.
The allusion implicit in Nabokov’s title is appropriate in a work dealing, as Nabokov does, with extreme marital complications and with a protagonist who ultimately feels so frustrated and unhappy.
Nabokov’s story alludes elsewhere to Othello, as in the opening words of the story’s final paragraph: “Yet the pity of it,” which echoes another statement by Othello earlier in the play (4.1.195). There is even, perhaps, a pun on Othello’s ethnic identity in the story’s final paragraph, where a “moored fishing boat” is mentioned. Like Othello, the main character of Nabokov’s story feels that he has made “some fatal mistake.” Perhaps the final paragraph of the story even implies that the main character is contemplating suicide.