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Is there a worse job to have than being a messenger for a major villain? The hours are long, the pay is low, your boss thinks that the world revolves around him, and likes to abuse his men for fun, and remember that dental plan that made you join in the first place? Yeah, that got canceled last year.
And then there's the very worst part of being a Big Bad's messenger: bring him a message with bad news, any bad news, (even just something small like that his mother is running 10 minutes late for the party) and he'll flip out, fly into a rage, and kill you. Why? Because you're the closest thing to him when he gets the bad news, and you're expendable. Maybe it's time to see if the heroes need some extra help or sidekicks.
The origin of the trope leads back to ancient Greece at least. One possible theory (besides the king being affected with Pride) is that the messenger was a defeated or losing general's son, and that his death was punishment for failure. It's also such a common cliche that the Evil Overlord List took time to specifically mention it, as evidenced by the page quote. Its depressing regularity in the ancient world led to the first rule of international law: Diplomatic Immunity. In the end, everyone (even Genghis Khan, who destroyed multiple empires) thought it was just a little unfair to the messengers.
By the way, remember when we told the worst was bringing your master a bad news? We lied. The worst is bringing someone else a message from your master. Such as an ultimatum. The recipient is guaranteed to reply, in a non-ambiguous way, that he will have none of it; and by "non-ambiguous", I mean by sending your head back. Without the rest of your body. Also note that even the "good guys" might do this, especially Anti Heroes.
When villains do this, it is generally done as a subtrope of You Have Failed Me and Bearer of Bad News, and is a way to Kick the Dog. And if you're in a story featuring Black and Grey Morality, do whatever it takes to get out of delivering a message, since your life expectancy is slightly shorter than that of a guy standing on top of skyscraper in a thunderstorm saying "What's the worst that could happen?" It's also usually a subtrope of Aggressive Negotiations. Guys, the messengers are coming in peace.
When heroes do this, it's because the messenger was a bad guy anyway, so why not murder him when he isn't making any threats? Some shows make the messenger look particularly evil to avoid the negative aspects of this trope.
"I'm just the messenger" is a stock phrase used to remind people that this trope isn't really fair, and is fairly likely to work.
Not to be confused with Please Shoot the Messenger, where the recipient is actively instructed by the message to kill the person who delivered it.
Anime and Manga
- In Dragonball Z, a henchman of Frieza's arrives to announce that the Ginyu Force has arrived. As soon as he's finished, Frieza promptly vaporizes him with eyebeams. The worst part for this poor messenger was that the arrival of the Ginyu Force was good news for Frieza, seeing as they were his men. His most elite warriors, at that.
- Dragon Ball Abridged put a twist on that same scene. The henchman comes in, reports on the arrival of the Ginyu Force, and Frieza seems content to let him be, but then the henchman also announces that due to the tendency of Frieza's men to be killed off by Frieza, the rest of his men have decided to form a union. Frieza says that decision is "Adorable" in a mildly amused voice, then promptly kills the henchman without even turning to face him.
- Asobi Ni Iku Yo does this in the first episode when Aoi shoots a messenger... or, rather, shoots in the general direction of a messenger. He purposely missed, just because he felt like scaring the crap out of the dude.
- In Hellsing, Alucard blasts Schrödinger when he comes as a messenger to a Hellsing conference (of course, Schrödinger survives that, thanks to his "quantum physics" abilities).
- In Asterix and the Goths, Metric tells his interpreter that if their Gaulish captive, Getafix, will not show them magic, the interpreter will be killed as well. When Getafix refuses, the interpreter lies, not realizing that Getafix speaks Gothic.
- In the Belgian series Papyrus, poor Papyrus learns this the hard way when the pharaoh sends him on a mission to announce a string of bad news to the king of Crete: his son died and the Cretan diplomatic envoy perished in a sea storm, along with a sacred bull given as an offering. Off to the arena.
- Subverted in The Sandman. Morpheus sends a messenger to Lucifer that he intends to travel To Hell and Back to free Nada's soul. Knowing that Lucifer will Shoot the Messenger, he sends the Biblical Cain as his envoy, since Cain is marked by God and not even the forces of Hell can kill him. Lucifer still manages to hurt and terrify Cain despite that.
- In Enemy of My Enemy, Brute High-Chieftain Torikus does this a lot, and he does it very brutally. One scene describes an unfortunate messenger's skull fragments spread across the area around Torikus after a particularly bad development for the Brutes.
- The Sun Soul: In chapter 22, during the Celadon Civil War, Mayor Vicar sends a messenger to Princess Erika's side, telling them to surrender. If Erika's side loses, there will be no mercy for them — so they had better surrender now while they still can. Brock, on Erika's side, steps forward, yells 'IF!', and signals his army to attack. The messenger ends up with two big ugly arrows protruding through his chest, promptly falls off his Rapidash, and dies. Quite literally a case of Shoot the Messenger.
- The Jade Warlord does it to a messenger in the movie The Forbidden Kingdom.
- Rotti Largo had the doctor who told him he was terminally ill executed.
- Disney's Mulan. Two Imperial scouts have been captured by Shan-Yu. He mockingly congratulates them on finding his army, then gives them a threat to take back to the Emperor. As they run away:
Shan-Yu: How many men does it take to deliver a message?
- In Three Hundred, King Leonidas and the Spartans execute a Persian messenger and his armed escort for insulting their kingdom while bringing Xerxes' demand for "earth and water" as a token of submission to the empire, telling him that he'll find plenty of both down in the well, where they then proceed to throw them down. Which is kicked off (literally) by Leonidas yelling "This! Is! SPARTA!"
- Notably, this actually happened in real life, with both the Spartans and the Athenians killing the Persian messengers by cutting their throats and throwing them down the well, respectively.
- Every Persian emissary either died or was maimed. It's a Running Gag.
- However, this was a big no-no, since killing heralds offended the gods, and thus the fact that during the subsequent war Athens was taken by the Persians and sacked was seen by some as divine retribution (though not by Herodotus). Sparta, meanwhile, fell under the curse of Talthybios (Agamemnon's herald, who was worshiped in a temple there), which showed itself in a string of bad omens after sacrifices. So they sent two volunteers to the Persian capital Susa to offer themselves to be executed in retribution. Xerxes replied that the Spartans had violated "the rules which prevailed among all men by slaying heralds", but he would not do the same, nor would he release them from their guilt. He sent them back, and thus the Spartans later said their misfortunes in the early part of the Peloponnesian War were caused by the curse revisiting them because this mission had placated Talthybios only temporarily.
- Notably, this actually happened in real life, with both the Spartans and the Athenians killing the Persian messengers by cutting their throats and throwing them down the well, respectively.
- Aragorn beheading the Mouth of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. In the book, he recoils from Aragorn's Death Glare and says, "I am a herald and ambassador and may not be assailed!" Gandalf points out that nobody has actually threatened him.
- In keeping with Road to Perdition's Black and Gray Morality, Michael Sullivan does this to a messenger sent to bribe him out of revenge. For reference, the messenger was completely unarmed and nonthreatening. Of course, given that Michael himself was being set up for a messenger-killing ala Rosencrantz and Guilderstern less than 10 minutes earlier in the film, and that the messenger in question was representing the Adult Child responsible for the deaths of his wife and son... his reaction is somewhat understandable.
- In Blood Simple, Julian Marty tells Loren Visser about the ancient Roman practice of killing the Bearer of Bad News when the PI delivers photos of Marty's wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. Not only does Visser laugh off the posturing, he casually (later on) inverts the trope.
- Parodied in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which the gaoler mentions that "good news is always rewarded and bad news is severely punished". Guess which kind he ends up delivering...
- Lampshaded quite literally in Beerfest. Only instead of shooting the messenger, they sidestep the technicality by suffocating him with beer hoses.
- In "The Warlords" film starring Jet Li as Pang Qingyun and Andy Lau as Zhao Erhu, a new army called Shan led by the two main characters are sent on a mission with inferior numbers to attack and claim the territory of a much larger army with much more weapons and firepower. The odds are against them, and the opposing army sends a messenger to tell General Zhao that the odds are against them and they can't win. The General pulls out his sword and slices the the messenger's neck without a word, then he and his men charge in for the attack. Chop The Messenger?
- Battle Beyond the Stars. A Proud Warrior Race responds to Sador's demands by returning his emmisary as a jar of powder. A furious Sador destroys their entire planet to encourage the others.
- Clue the movie is all about this. Wadsworth points out directly that "everyone who's died gave vital information about one of [the guests]." Ironically, the last informant who is killed is a delivering a singing telegram shot at the front door.
- A heroic example, from Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone:
Draco Malfoy: Excuse me, Professor, perhaps I heard you wrong. I thought you said "the four of us."
- Happens so many times in Romance of the Three Kingdoms that it's eventually Lampshaded when Liu Bei writes a letter to Guan Yu to inform him of where he was, "but there was no one to take it." Then there's this exchange years and many chapters later...
"When two countries are at war, their emissaries are not slain," said Lu Su. "Messengers are slain to show one's dignity and independence," replied Zhou Yu. The unhappy bearer of the letter was decapitated, and his head sent back to Cao Cao by the hands of his escort.
- In a Wing Commander novel, Prince Thrakhath forced a messenger to commit ritual suicide. Semi-justifiable because the reason was not because of the bad news, but the way the messenger delivered it, running through the ship and looking distressed, which would cause rumors and morale problems. Once Fridge Logic kicks in though, you wonder why a messenger is needed on a space ship rather sending the message electronically, and realize the scene exists solely to show that Thrakhath is the type to Shoot the Messenger.
- Averted in the Island in The Sea of Time series by ~S. M. Stirling~. Magnificent Bastard William Walker is approached by a nervous messenger who's clearly bringing news of disaster. Walker calmly explains to the messenger that he's not going to harm him, but when something bad happens he's got to know right away, or else it's like being blind.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort responds to the news that Potter has stolen a Horcrux from a supposedly impregnable vault by having a Villainous Breakdown and killing not only the messenger, but everyone in the room (though this was also to keep knowledge of the Horcrux secret).
- But in Order of the Phoenix, before Voldemort started to lose his cool, he responded to the news that his plan to steal a prophecy from the Ministry of Magic could not have worked by thanking the messenger and promising to keep him in confidence. The man who furnished him with flawed information, however...
- This is taken to the next level in the backstory of the first book of the Chalion series; a crazy enemy general tells the messengers that one of them will have to kill the other. Cazaril refuses to take part, denying the villain his fun, but the other messenger, Dondo, tries to go through with it. The general stops it, and releases them both, knowing that Dondo's frantic attempts to hide the truth of his cowardice will do more to Cazaril than he could.
- In Ravenloft novel Knight of the Black Rose, Strahd and a rival Dark Lord send servants that they are displeased with to carry messages to each other, knowing that the messengers will be tortured horribly and eventually executed by the other dark lord.
- In Manzoni's The Betrothed, the Podest Ã and Count Attilio have an argument about chivalry, Attilio thinks it's legal and moral to beat a messenger who carries bad news, especially if the message is the challenge to a duel.
- Close to the end of The Pilo Family Circus, the accountant makes the mistake of delivering a letter to Kurt Pilo during his Villainous Breakdown. Ironically, the note was actually good news, containing the names of all the members of the Freedom Movement, but Kurt wasn't in the mood to read it until after he'd ripped the accountant's head off.
- Towards the end of the Warcraft novel Rise of the Horde, one of Thrall's human spies arrives to Orgrimmar to bring news of the arrival of the draenei. While pondering the (terrible) news, Thrall notices that the man is shaking in fear and realises he is afraid of getting killed. He orders his guards to get him food and water while musing about how unwise killing messengers is for it only causes people to hide the bad news until too late. Granted Thrall isn't a villain but most orcs are seen as such by humans.
- Magatha, on the other hand, plays this straight in The Shattering Prelude to Cataclysm, killing the orc who brought her a message from Garrosh saying that he won't support her because he found out that she poisoned his weapon during his duel with Cairne. She even seizes the letter rather than let him read the letter aloud after the first indication of Garrosh's refusal.
- Bayle Domon is given a message to deliver along with a substantial reward, and promised more on delivery. Domon is Genre Savvy enough to open it carefully first, and discovers it says, in essence, "This messenger is a devil-worshipper. Kill him! --King Galldrian."
- There's another example in the 5th book. After getting news from a minion that her ex-lover had slept with someone else, Lanfear tears the messenger's skin off and goes on a magical rampage.
- Inverted when a messenger from Sammael hears Rand say no to an offer of truce. The messenger then starts oozing blood from every pore and dies. One person wonders how the bad guy will know what Rand's answer was, another says, "Very likely how he died will let him know."
- Chevette Washington, a bicycle messenger in William Gibson's Bridge Trilogy, mentions this trope frequently. She's never shot, but she clarifies that the basic idea- blaming a messenger for her message- is true.
- In The Sword of Truth Prince Harold is killed for delivering the message that his sister the queen intended her country remain neutral. By the good guys, of course. And his half-sister thanked her allies for doing it, because they can't show mercy to their "enemies".
- In one of Stephen King's more down to earth short stories, a rival gang leader sends a messenger to insult another's gang leader by taunting his sister (who's obese) so they can draw him out. The messenger is obviously scared to the point of tears while saying 'yo mama' jokes right in the man's face, but luckily is not killed but the gang leader still got himself killed rushing recklessly into the open to kill the sender (which prompts his sister to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge
- Subverting the trope further, said obese sister later gets revenge on the message sender himself by killing him slowly with a metal wire through the eye.
- In Patrick O Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, this is inverted in that messengers bearing good news will be "much caressed" by the Powers That Be back in England. (Given how the series works, that makes this Truth in Television.) Stephen Maturin then uses his powers of persuasion to see to it that Aubrey, though screwed of his victory by a spotlight-stealing admiral, still gets chosen as the messenger and thus gets a plum command.
- Wess Roberts, PHD. wrote a non-fiction business advice book, "Business Secrets of Attila the Hun", which included this nugget; "A wise chieftain does not kill the messenger who delivers bad news. He kills the messenger who fails to deliver bad news."
- Inverted in Solo Command. General Melvar has to bring Zsinj some very bad news: not only has a deathtrap failed to kill Wraith Squadron (or even any of its members), but they have managed to take one of his key personnel alive. Zsinj has an epic Villainous Breakdown where he destroys practically everything in his office but the person who brought him the bad news.
General Melvar: Will you be wanting your office restored, or do you wish to redecorate?
- Towards the end of Eldest, the second book in The Inheritance Cycle, a messenger arrives from The Empire's troops and orders the members of the Varden to surrender or "suffer the doom of your herald," then presents the severed head of the Varden's messenger. Eragon asks Nasuada if he should kill him, but Nasuada replies that she will not violate the sanctity of envoys, even if the Empire has. Shortly after, Eragon's dragon Saphira lets loose a mighty roar and the Empire's messenger is knocked off his steed, then roasted in a burst of flame that erupts forth from the Burning Plains.
- The Phantom of the Opera: In the original book, the standard method of solving any problem by the Opera administrators, PointyHairedBosses Richard and Moncharmin is to fire those employees involved in it (including those that informed of the problem). Only those with enough influence can escape.
- Animorphs: Visser Three, all the goddamn time.
Live Action TV
- In season 1 episode 9 of Arrested Development, Lindsay Bluth Fünke discusses this trope when she advises her brother Michael Bluth not to be the bearer of bad news to his love interest. Her exact words: "It's called 'Shoot the Messenger'."
- Referenced in the episode "Relativity" on Star Trek: Voyager. Commander Chakotay approaches Captain Janeway with a ship's status report and Janeway comments "Before you say anything, let me remind you what happens to bearers of bad news." "Don't kill the messenger," replies Chakotay, holding up his hands in mock fear. Janeway relents and Chakotay proceeds to report on the sorry state of Voyager and its systems.
- Damon Salvatore explicitly states that he believes in shooting the messenger for the express purpose of sending a message to the person sending the bad news, if that person is his enemy.
- In Spartacus: Vengeance, this is how Ashur is killed. The Big Bad sends him to give offer a deal to the good guys. If they had accepted, they would have needed to let the messenger return, but they refuse the offer and only send back the messenger's head. The Big Bad isn't surprised, but he was getting tired of having the guy around anyway.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy kills Holden Webster after he drops the bombshell about Spike siring him. Due to a scene cut we don't see if it was because Holden attacked or in a violent response to what he said, but Buffy's position as Holden's dust swirls around her is the same, implying that it happened immediately afterwards.
- In his song "Message Boy", Charlie Peacock contends that as a messenger it is his job to deliver both good news and bad news. A line from the song is "all I ask is remember, I am only the message boy."
- Apollo turning the raven black because it brought him bad news in Greek mythology. Except on those websites which say it was Athena.
- Parodied in an early Dilbert strip. Prior to giving his presentation, one of Dilbert's superiors assures him that they "don't shoot the messenger". Dilbert then proceeds to tell them the bad news that their idea is doomed to failure with Brutal Honesty, adding that they will probably be mocked for their stupidity and fired. One of them actually pulls out a machinegun begging to be allowed to wing Dilbert, but is reminded that they "don't shoot the messenger". Instead, they tar and feather him.
- Also referenced in a comic strip involving a "Scape Goat", literally. He is shot by the PHB, who clarifies he was aiming for the messenger. Dilbert suggests it was the Scape Goat's fault for standing there.
- Subverted in a regularly recycled Beetle Bailey gag: The officers receives a written order from the general, and it has one obvious spelling error that changes the meaning completely. Someone will point out what the general probably meant to say, but then someone else will always ask: "But who dares to tell the general that he did a mistake?" While the general probably wouldn't shoot anyone for pointing out one little spelling error (probably...), the answer is always the same: Nobody dares to tell the general that he did a mistake. They prefer to follow out the order, exactly the way it's written, and look like idiots, rather than telling the general to make a correction.
- Shakespeare's Richard III in the last act, who strikes the messenger before he even finishes his sentence about his enemy the Duke of Buckingham, crying "Till you bring better news!" It turns out that the news is that Buckingham has surrendered. The scene shows that Richard is beginning to crack up under his confident facade.
- Although when the messenger finishes delivering his message Richard apologizes to the man and gives him some money to make it up to him. And it's worth pointing out that the messenger was actually the third messenger in a row to come to Richard with news and the first two had been all bad.
- In Hamlet (and thus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), Hamlet switches R & G's message to say that the bearers are to be killed. At the end of the play, it's revealed they are.
- In Antony and Cleopatra, a messenger tells Cleopatra that Antony has remarried, so she threatens to more or less play football with his eyeballs, among other nasty things.
- This trope even gets lampshaded by a messenger in an earlier scene.
First Messenger: The nature of bad news infects the teller.
- The coarse-acting play by Michael Green Henry the Tenth (Part Seven) spoofs this trope by having a herald who gets beaten up every time he delivers his message.
- In her first scene in The Wiz, Evilene sings a whole song about how she will do this to anyone who brings her bad news. After she finishes, the first thing her henchman do is bring her bad news.
- This trope is also spoofed in the Rowan Atkinson comedy routine, Pink Tights and Plenty of Props.
- Sophocles' Antigone has a messenger who spends a long time trying to avoid giving Creon bad news out of fear that this trope will be played straight, even pointing out that Polyneices was only technically buried. In the end Creon merely threatens to torture him to death. By the standards of ancient Greek tragedy, the scene is very funny.
- In an Inversion, by Napoleonic times, the bearer of news of a victory was automatically promoted when they reported in with the news. Generals would put some thought into whom they wanted to make the trip back to Parliament, or to the Emperor.
- The Mongol Empire destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate over exactly that. The Abbasids abducted a caravan belonging to the Mongol Empire, and executed the Mongol emissaries who came seeking reparations. The Mongols subsequently destroyed them, doing damage to Baghdad that the region still hasn't recovered from.
- Also done famously to Khwarezmid a few years earlier. The Mongols sent not one, but TWO diplomatic caravans to Khwarezmid, and in both cases the messengers were either executed or publicly humiliated and sent packing. The Mongol response was to erase Khwarezmid from the face of the earth.
- The Mongols were actually one of the major forces that prompted this to really become as discredited as it became and diplomatic immunity as respected as it did in the Medieval world, since their response was always but *ALWAYS* disproportionate. They also respected the diplomatic immunity of foreign messengers carrying messages to them.
- Vlad III of Wallachia (better known as Dracula) once recieved some Ottoman emmisaries, who due to their religion, refused to remove their turbans. he made certain they could never take them off; nailing them to their heads.
- Those in the island city of Tyre (no longer an island) threw the messengers of a general who really did not wish to spend resources conquering them (he wanted them to ally with him). this general, being Alexander III of Macedon, didn't take kindly to this.
- Specifically, he laid siege, built a peninsula out to the city, and razed it to the ground.
- In the Bionicle toyline, Makuta Icarax, a major villain of one arc, receives some bad news, and grabs the messenger by the throat.
Icarax: Take heart. You know that old saying "Don't kill the messenger"? *murders messenger*
- In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, the three-country Laguz Alliance sends a messenger to the Begnion senators demanding answers to a crime they are accused of namely, the Serenes Massacre. This trope, then big war.
- In the Telltale Games version of Back to The Future, George McFly implies delivering bad news to Citizen Brown is a very bad idea. However, given that even in an Orwellian timeline he's still incorruptibly good, it's highly unlikely he'd take any steps past yelling without good reason.
- In the first Shogun: Total War, if the rival faction you're sending an emissary to really hates your guts, your emissary may come back to you missing everything from the neck down.
- In the game Castles 2 you can do this to any messenger of any count (and the Pope). Killing them got you into bad blood with the opposite party, but threatning to kill them and then letting them go lets you off scott free.
- A Team Fortress 2 comic reveals that the RED team is rather guilty of this;
'The Controller: First off, let me thank you gentlemen for shooting yet another messenger. And when you kill the messenger they can't return the miniature televisions, which it may surprise you to learn, don't grow naturally on their chests.
- Kid Radd, Crystal will zap anyone who gives her any news, good or bad, "because it's fun." Note that she does not kill them. She'd run out of messengers that way, and well, when that happens, how else will she entertain herself?
- This strip of The B Movie Comic.
- In 8-Bit Theater, King Steve jokingly ordered a guard to kill a messenger. He took it seriously, and every time the storyline goes back to Corneria, the messenger is still being chased.
- Although you don't get to see it. You know as well as they do that these two messengers in Drowtales are Deader Than Dead.
- Turn Signals on a Land Raider gives us this Chaos daemon prince.
- Karate Bears: One of the bears kills the messenger by presumably ripping his heart out
- The Simpsons did it in the episode "Margical History Tour".
- Interesting variation in The Salvation War: Armageddon. A demon bringing bad news typically isn't shot: he's [i]eaten[/i] by the demon he brought the news to. Not surprisingly, the priority of these messengers is try and avoid getting offed. Whether or not the one they report to is hungry seems to be part of the equation, however.
- Also inverted with Yahweh, wherein his general Michael-Lan deliberately attempts to phrase the bad news he gives in such a way so as to cause Yahweh to throw the most spectacular temper tantrums possible, complete with multi-coloured flashes of lightning that rip the marble facing from the walls (though they never actually seem to kill anybody, Michael included). It's made clear that Michael quite enjoys these displays and is the only one who isn't afraid of them.
- When Satan sends his Heralds to Earth to deliver the scrolls proclaiming their damnation, mankind generally responds to their arrival with violence. This has less to do with actually shooting the messenger and more "Holy shit there's a fifteen-foot tall demon coming this way KILL IT!" Except in Singapore, where the police shot the messenger dozens of times and beat it to death with the butts of their guns for littering when it threw the message scroll on the pavement.