Quibble (plot device)

In terms of fiction, a quibble is a plot device, used to fulfill the exact verbal conditions of an agreement in order to avoid the intended meaning. Typically quibbles are used in legal bargains and, in fantasy, magically enforced ones.[1]


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, which is not physically possible. He also uses one in Macbeth where Macbeth is killed by Macduff, despite it being said that “none of woman born” shall vanquish him, as the latter character was born by Caesarean section.

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.[1]

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; to avenge himself Brokk instead sews Loki's lips shut.[1]

The Savoy Operas by Gilbert and Sullivan frequently feature quibbles; W. S. Gilbert had read law and had practised briefly as a barrister, and regarded the minor technicalities of the law that typically gave rise to quibbles to be highly characteristic of the legalistic Victorian British society satirized in his works. For instance, 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 29 (a leap year) 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, but not knowing that the king is listening.[2]

In Piers Anthony's fantasy world Xanth, the law forbids reigning queens, thereby excluding a Sorceress from ruling. But when in Night Mare one Magician 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 although the law forbids reigning queens, it nowhere states that the post of king is reserved to males. Hence, several Sorceresses reign as King.

Leprechauns are notorious for quibbles, as evidenced in the 1959 movie Darby O'Gill and the Little People where the aging groundskeeper played by Albert Sharpe traps a leprechaun and receives three wishes. As one wish, he requests that the leprechaun make himself visible to the young groundskeeper who has been sent to replace him (played by Sean Connery). When he opens the sack that contains the leprechaun, the young man sees only a rabbit. Darby rebukes the leprechaun for lying, but the latter says, "You only asked that he be able to see me, not that he be able to see me in my true form."

Quibbles are the theme of The Twilight Zone episode "The Man in the Bottle". A genie freed from a bottle grants a couple four wishes, warning that every wish has consequences. One of the man's wishes is to be in a position of great power, the leader of a modern and powerful country who cannot be voted out of office. The genie turns him into Adolf Hitler during his final days in World War II.

In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Circle", Captain Sisko is ordered to evacuate the titular station against his better judgment. However, he notices that his superiors did not specify the extent of the evacuation, so he orders a complete evacuation of all their equipment, which will take far longer and necessitate some officers staying on the station in the face of an impending siege, giving them a chance to fight back. Likewise, "The Way of the Warrior", Sisko is forbidden to tell the Cardassians about an imminent invasion of their empire by the Klingons. However, if the Klingons take Cardassia, the Federation and Bajor will be put at risk, so he calls in the station's resident Cardassian tailor/spy to measure him for a suit while he discusses the imminent invasion with his senior officers.

In The Shadow Thieves, by Anne Ursu, Hades, attempting to banish the traitorous Philonecron, uses the words "You may never set foot in the Kingdom of the Dead again." Philonecron later gets around Hades's binding proclamation by having servants carry him into the Underworld.

In the 2002 film Spider-Man, Peter Parker faces professional wrestler Bonesaw McGraw after seeing a newspaper advertisement specifying "$3000 for 3 minutes in the ring." Though Parker wins the match in two minutes, the promotion's crooked promoter only pays him $100 citing that since Parker did not last three minutes in the ring, Parker did not fulfil the required conditions and was therefore unable to receive the full $3000.

In the 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the main antagonist Hector Barbossa demonstrates this multiple times throughout the film. The most notable instance is midway through the film, where the main protagonists are forced to walk the plank despite Barbossa agreeing to set them free. Barbossa explains this by clarifying that Will Turner “failed to specify when or where”.

In A Game of Thrones, drawing a sword or spilling blood is forbidden in the city of Vaes Dothrak. However, killing someone is not explicitly forbidden. This is evident when Khal Drogo melts some of his gold medallions, has his men restrain Viserys, and pours the molten gold on him, killing him without drawing a sword or spilling blood.

In Mark of Athena, a group of Eidolons are forced to swear to never possess the protagonists. Instead, they possess other people and objects nearby to trap three of them.

Quibbling is preempted somewhat comically in an episode of American Dad where Roger the alien bets he can play guitar better than a musician at a coffee shop after only a week of lessons. The guitarist takes up the wager, with the condition that the loser "never show his face" at the coffee shop again. Roger says he'll do him one better: loser never gets to come back, even if they're wearing a mask. When Roger discovers that learning to play guitar is actually difficult, he sells his soul to the devil in order to outperform the guitarist, who begs Roger to rescind the bet because playing guitar at the coffee shop is his main source of income. Roger again uses the quibble by telling the musician that if he agrees to pay the cost of Roger's guitar lessons, he'll consider the first bet called off. The guitarist agrees, and is immediately sucked into Hell as the 'cost' of Roger's guitar lessons was his soul--which he now gets to keep because the guitarist had agreed to 'pay' for Roger's guitar lessons.

Prophecies and spells

When Croesus consulted the Pythia, he was told that going to war with Cyrus the Great would destroy a great empire. Croesus assumed that the seer meant that the Persian Empire would be destroyed and Croesus would triumph. He proceeded to attack the Persians, believing victory was assured. In the end, however, the Persians were victorious, and the empire destroyed was not Cyrus's but Croesus's.

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth believes that he is invincible because the Three Witches give him the prophecy that "none of woman born shall harm [him]." In the final battle of the play, Macduff is able to kill Macbeth, because Macduff reveals that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd"[1] — born via a Caesarean section. In a second prophecy, Macbeth is told that he has nothing to fear until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. He feels safe since he knows that forests cannot move, but is overcome when the English army, shielded with boughs cut from Birnam Wood, advances on his stronghold at Dunsinane.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Elf Glorfindel's prophecy states that "not by the hand of man will the Witch-king of Angmar fall." The Witch-king is slain by Éowyn, a woman, during the battle of the Pelennor Fields. She is aided by Merry, a male hobbit[1] who distracted him by stabbing him with a Numenorean blade, as the Ring Wraiths are harmed by such swords.

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 them all 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.[1]

In The Return of Jafar, the sequel to Disney's film Aladdin, the main villain Jafar, after becoming a genie, is unable to use his powers to directly kill living beings. However, he is able to use his powers to create situations that could kill or harm his enemies, including possibly torture as Jafar darkly suggests, "you would be surprised what you can live through." Jafar also frames Aladdin for the death of the Sultan and even impersonates Princess Jasmine ordering his execution by proxy.

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").

In Death Note, the Shinigami Ryuk warns the protagonist Light Yagami to "Don't think that a human who's used the Death Note can go to heaven or hell".[3] At the end of the series it is revealed that there's no heaven or hell and that all humans, no matter what they did in life, are equal in death.[4] When a human dies, the human goes to "Mu" (Nothingness),[5] or rather ceases to exist. What Ryuk tried to say to Light at the beginning of the series was that not even a human who's used the Death Note can go to heaven or hell; like all other humans, when that human dies, it will cease to exist.

In Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo, it's impossible to kill anyone intentionally in Foo; Sabine gets around this by causing third parties to take action which, unknown to them, will kill his intended victims.


  1. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Quibbles" p 796 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  2. Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 320 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2003 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  3. Death Note chapter 1, page 24
  4. Death Note chapter 107, page 15
  5. Death Note chapter 107, pages 18–19
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