Quibble

monkeys paw by matt verges

In terms of fiction, a quibble [kwib-uhl] 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. 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.

The Savoy Operas by Gilbert and Sullivan frequently feature quibbles; W. S. Gilbert had read law and had practiced 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 and will not have his twenty-first birthday until he is eighty-four, and so compel him to rejoin them.

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.

Exploiting loopholes in prophecies and spells is also sometimes called quibble. For example, when Croesus consulted the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, 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,’ the titular general 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, his foil, is able to kill him, because Macduff reveals that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d’ — 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.

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