Quibble (plot device)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In literature, a quibble is a common plot device, used to fulfill the exact verbal conditions of an agreement in order to avoid the intended meaning. Its most common uses are in legal bargains and, in fantasy, magically enforced ones.

In one of the best known examples, William Shakespeare used a quibble in The Merchant of Venice. Portia saves Antonio in a court of law by pointing out that the agreement called for a pound of flesh, but no blood, and therefore Shylock can collect only if he sheds no blood.


A pact with the devil commonly contains clauses that allow the devil to quibble over what he grants, and equally commonly, the maker of the pact finds a quibble to escape the bargain.

In Norse mythology, Loki, having bet his head with Brokk and lost, forbids Brokk to take any part of his neck, saying he had not bet it; Brokk is able only to sew his lips shut.

In The Pirates of Penzance, Frederick's terms of indenture bind him to the pirates until his twenty-first birthday; the pirates point out that he was born on February 29th and will not have his twenty-first birthday until he is eighty-four, and so compel him to rejoin them.

When the hero of the Child ballad The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward is forced to trade places with an impostor and swear never to reveal the truth to anyone, he tells his story to a horse while he knows that the heroine is eavesdropping. In the similar fairy tale The Goose Girl, the princess pours out her story to an iron stove, not knowing that the king is listening.

In Piers Anthony's fantasy world, Xanth, the law requires that the king be a magician and forbids ruling queens, but when in Night Mare one king after another falls to an invasion's hostile magic and it appears that no more magicians exist to take the throne, the last magician king observes that while the law forbids ruling queens, it nowhere restricts the title of "king" to men, and several sorceresses take the throne to fight the invasion.

In Astérix at the Olympic Games, after Asterix and Obelix win some of the Olympic challenges, Brutus makes them lose their medals revealing that the Gauls have used a magic potion. Asterix argues that Brutus also cheated in using magic to win the contest, though Brutus replies that, unlike them, he actually lost the challenge.

Prophecies and spells

Exploiting loopholes in prophecies and spells is also sometimes called quibble.

When Croesus was told by the Pythia that going to war with Cyrus the Great would destroy a great empire, the empire was not Cyrus's but Croesus's.

In Macbeth, Macduff was able to kill Macbeth, who was unable to be harmed by anyone of woman born, because Macduff was "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd" — born via a Caesarean section.

In The Lord of the Rings, despite Glorfindel's prophecy that "not by the hand of man will the Witch-king of Angmar fall," the Witch-king is slain by Éowyn, a woman, and Merry, a hobbit.

In Ruddigore, the baronets are cursed to die if they do not commit a horrible crime every day, but failing to commit such a crime is committing suicide, a horrible crime (a realization that brings one of them back to life).

In Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures, a book is said to inflict terrible fates on any man opening it, but causes only mild annoyance to the Librarian, who is in fact an orangutan.

Jafar, after becoming a genie, is unable to use his powers to directly kill living beings, but he is able to use his powers to create situations that could kill his enemies.

Jack Sparrow (from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) promised to be Davy Jones' slave for 100 years in exchange for receiving the Black Pearl (a ship) and being made captain of that ship, for thirteen years. When Jones reminds Sparrow of his debt, Jack argues that he wasn't captain during those thirteen years, for a mutiny quickly occurred and he was abandoned on an island by his crew. To that, Davy Jones replies that regardless of this, he still owes him his soul, for he has been introducing himself as Captain Jack Sparrow during those thirteen years (and indeed, it is a running gag in the movies that each time he is called "Jack Sparrow", Jack will correct the other by saying "Captain Jack Sparrow").

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Quibble (plot device)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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