Cornered Rattlesnake

"Put the army in the face of death where there is no escape and they will not flee or be afraid — there is nothing they cannot achieve."
Sun Tzu

The "Cornered Rattlesnake" is when a character or a faction is pressured to the breaking point. Another group or a villain will bully or threaten the weaker "rattlesnake" until the weaker person fights back. Sometimes the "weaker" group is actually surprisingly powerful, but the bully underestimated their abilities. Having the rattlesnake "bite back" is something the villain normally didn't intend or anticipate, and so he will face the consequences.

Sometimes a Cornered Rattlesnake will be given assistance from the enemies of the villains, and so will begin to be able to defend itself. The villain's cruel actions could actually make their allies turn towards the 'rattlesnake's' side.

The phrase refers to the real life scenario of if a person were to corner a rattlesnake. The human can easily choose to retreat, but instead tries to kill the rattlesnake. Cornered, the rattlesnake would defend itself with a Desperation Attack. This trope doesn't require the rattlesnake to win, as it is possible to kill the snake, but being bitten is highly likely.

Sometimes this is a response by a Paper Tiger, to a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, Hopeless Boss Fight or Curb-Stomp Battle. See also Beware the Nice Ones. This is also one of the major themes of Japanese Spirit, the proverbial Japanese expression being kyūso neko o kamu, "the cornered rat will bite a cat."

This isn't Bullying a Dragon, as the cornered rattlesnake appears, at first, to be physically weaker or a huge coward and only reacts in self-defense. Compare Mugging the Monster, where the would-be victim just shows no outward sign of the threat they pose. Also compare Burning the Ships, which is intentionally putting your own side in this position.


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    Comic Books 
  • The Transformers: Robots in Disguise: When Starscream's ploys fail, he goes into shock, being unable to do anything. Then, if someone comes along and taunts him further, Starscream goes berserk. Spotlight: Megatron has Megatron actually plan this, attacking a broken Starscream in order to make him fight back.

    Fan Works 
  • Played for Laughs in the RWBY fic Impromptu Midterms. The teams are sent to eradicate a nest of Grimm cubs, and Jaune ends up dragged into the middle of it. So while everyone else is fighting the cubs, they keep hearing his screams of terror... and then they find him in the nest, alive and surrounded by the corpses of Grimm he just killed.
    Jaune: What the hell took you guys so long?

    Films — Animation 
  • In Toy Story, Sid's toys have been brutalized by Sid, who sadistically enjoys destroying, damaging and disfiguring his toys. The toys risk being exposed as living creatures, but are able to scare Sid into respecting his toys.
  • In Disney's Aladdin, Jafar hires Aladdin to take the lamp out of the Cave of Wonders, and once Jafar has the lamp, he immediately tries to kill Aladdin. Aladdin survives, and Abu steals the lamp back from Jafar. Which he probably wouldn't have done if Jafar hadn't revealed himself to be a treacherous enemy.
  • Scar from The Lion King prefers to scheme, let his hyena minions do the dirty work, beg and snivel his way out of fights. When he realizes he's about to lose the throne he's desired all his life to his nephew Simba and be banished into exile forever in ridicule, that reluctance is thrown completely out the window as he attacks Simba with every trick he has and nearly wins. Even as he's being attacked and eaten by his own hyenas en masse, if one watches the shadows closely they can see that he goes down fighting.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy
    • In The Dark Knight, the gangs of Gotham are forced to hire the Joker as the police and Batman are overwhelming their gangs. This leads to Joker blowing up many buildings and threatening or massacring dozens of people.
      Bruce: I know the mob wouldn't go down without a fight, but this is different. They've crossed the line.
      Alfred: You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them, you squeezed them to a point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they don't fully understand.
    • In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce is trapped in prison while the city of Gotham is in danger of being blown up, but even his anger and sense or responsibility aren't enough to give him the willpower to escape. Finally, when time is about to run out for Gotham, Bruce becomes so desperate that he throws all safety to the wind and escapes the prison in a life-or-death attempt without wearing a rope.
  • In The Shining, the terrified Wendy only hits Jack with the baseball bat when he gets too close and after multiple warnings.

  • In A Brother's Price, Captain Raven Tern is genre-savvy enough to avert this. When she stands in front of the Whistler farm, and the question is presented to her why she doesn't just force them to let her in, she points out that the adults are away on business, and the house is full of toddlers and girls in their early teens, who are armed up to the teeth.
  • Animorphs:
    • David is this both figuratively and literally. In The Solution he actually morphs a rattlesnake, and as for the figurative part? The end-of-book blurb for The Solution speaks for itself:
      David is dangerous.
      Power hungry.
      And he has nothing to lose.
      That's why the Animorphs have to get rid of him. Now.
    • Visser One thinks of the whole human race this way, which is why she pushes for a secret invasion — she knows enough about human history and psychology to realize that they'll fight to the last man, and sometimes even win, no matter how much stronger their foes might be.
  • Don Quixote and the Knight of the Grove are going to fight, and the squire of the Knight of the Grove bullies Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire, into a fight. Sancho continuously denies this, until the squire of the Knight of the Grove menaces to give Sancho some buffets, so Sancho invokes this trope trying to defy it:
    "To match that plan," said Sancho, "I have another that is not a whit behind it; I will take a cudgel, and before your worship comes near enough to waken my anger I will send yours so sound to sleep with whacks, that it won't waken unless it be in the other world, where it is known that I am not a man to let my face be handled by anyone; let each look out for the arrow—though the surer way would be to let everyone's anger sleep, for nobody knows the heart of anyone, and a man may come for wool and go back shorn; God gave his blessing to peace and his curse to quarrels; if a hunted cat, surrounded and hard pressed, turns into a lion, God knows what I, who am a man, may turn into..."
  • In The Art of War, Sun Tzu warns the reader from putting an opposing army in this position: Always leave your opponent an escape route or you'll unnecessarily lose men to the ensuing Last Stand, no matter how much stronger your army is.
  • Following Sun Tzu's advice, Mat deliberately averts this when making battle plans in the fifth book of The Wheel of Time, explaining to Lan that you never want to see what your opposition can do when they don't have any option other than to fight as hard as they can.
  • Played with by Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Two snakes which were transformed into humans are threatening Magrat, who is usually an utter wimp and tends to shrink from conflict, then they back her into a corner and she punches one of them so hard that it flies through air and then clubs the other on the head.
    "the trouble with small furry animals in a corner is that, just occasionally, one of them is a mongoose."
  • The Boy who was as hard as Stone has the main character undergoing this.
  • In Pact, Blake Thorburn averts this — he has a tendency to lash out violently and without thinking, regardless of whether he has a realistic escape route or not. Hence, his enemies have no issues cornering him. The problem arises when Rose, his Distaff Counterpart, is cornered. Being the calmer and more educated member of the pair, she's more learned in the family trade-specifically, diabolism, and once she's backed into a corner she rapidly loses any moral qualms she has about sending things like Bloody Mary after her enemies.
  • This is why Gavin de Becker discourages filing restraining orders in The Gift of Fear, as they often just push abusive spouses and stalkers over the edge and cause them to murder their victims.
  • In Mahabharata, the young warrior prince Abhimanyu ends up alone, encircled and cut off completely from reinforcements. He puts up such a ferocious Last Stand, that the opposition has to break the agreed upon rules of war, gang up on him and kill him, before he decimates them utterly.
  • Implied with this line from Romeo and Juliet, said by Romeo when the whole city police is surrounding him at the entrance to Juliet's grave:
    Tempt not a desperate man!
  • In Ender's Game, Ender prefers to win his battles through wits and finesse rather than brute force. However, when pushed too far, despite his physical weakness, he becomes a surprisingly hard-hitting Combat Pragmatist with a brutality that scares even himself. The military commanders recognize this trait early on and secretly encourage such tough situations to recur in Ender's Battle School career.

    Live-action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: If Cersei's back is to the wall she will do things that while not safe for her in the long run will make her enemies regret pushing her, as shown in the season 6 finale which has Cersei facing judgement for her crimes and all of her plans to escape that justice thwarted by the Faith Militant. Left with no other option, she bombs the entire court where she would have been tried and all her enemies with it, despite the fact that this victory will almost certainly be short-lived once the full ramifications kick in.
  • Invoked by Willis "Diamondback" Stryker in Luke Cage when he's confronted at gunpoint by Domingo Colon.
    "You know when a rattlesnake is at its most dangerous, Domingo? [beat] When it's cornered!" [draws twin Walther pistols and opens fire on Domingo's gang]
  • In Babylon 5, during the Earth Civil War arc, Sheridan is trying to get Earthforce troops fighting for President Clark to defect or at least stand down from fighting, and is surprised that instead they're determinedly fighting to the death. It turns out that Clark had been telling them that Earthforce crews who surrendered to Sheridan were being executed and replaced by aliens, so they believe they're as good as dead anyway. Some of the actual defectors who had already sided with Sheridan manage to contact them and prove that Clark was lying, and the troops stand down.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted: Ebon Dragon has this theme as one of his (very few) admirable qualities. The harder you gang-up on him (or one of his chosen), the harder he/they fight back — usually in a way that is completely unexpected. For example, Cornered Titan Desperation charm allows you to use ranged attack charm in point blank range if you're, well, cornered. Screw momentum, he has to survive!
  • Espers in Psionics: The Next Stage in Human Evolution are extremely dangerous when pushed too far.
    • Rose in Captured. After being detained, put on constant P.P.I.C.s, and subjected to cruel experiments and indoctrination attempts by the Shop for at least six weeks an agent tells her that her friends were killed in an escape attempt. She snaps and mangles the agent in question. Details are left out but she notes that the agent isn't pretty anymore and may not ever walk again. She doesn't even know what she did or how she did it.
    • Harry in Broken Things. Kept in a position similar, although seemingly even crueler, to Rose, he eventually gains enough power to overcome his captors and goes on a rampage throughout the facility. When his rescuers show up, they find him killing the nurses and doctors that tortured him.
    • Ian TK Pushes Chad after being assaulted by him and his bully friends, yet again.
  • Some of the flavor text for white, red, and green cards from Magic: The Gathering reference this trope, such as Alara Reborn's Colossal Might.
  • In Pathfinder, one racial ability that ratfolk can take is effectively this — if they are under half health and have no conscious allies within 30 feet of them, they get bonuses to both attack and defense.
  • The hero known as The Naturalist in Sentinels of the Multiverse represents this state with his "Cornered Beast" Ongoing card, right down to the flavour text. Mechanically, it does two things: it lets him insta-kill weak enemies, and, if he's got the Crocodile symbol online, it increases his damage when outnumbered.
    Fanatic: Whether beast or man or monster, a cornered foe is a desperate one.

    Video Games 
  • Painwheel from Skull Girls has been experimented on, brainwashed and mutilated by Valentine's labs. Her scarred and deformed body makes it impossible to live a normal life, even her family cannot recognize her and mistake her as a murderous monster. Painwheel was once a normal girly teenager, but now is a feral and violent fighter. Valentine's greatest weapon is now her biggest threat.
  • Chell, from Portal, is forced to destroy GLaDOS, who is forcing Chell to go through dangerous test chambers and even attempted to kill Chell by dragging her into a fire. Otherwise Chell is just a normal person, while GLaDOS is a giant robot that can fire rockets, summon turrets and poison rooms with neurotoxin.
  • Similarly, Gordon Freeman from Half-Life is a perfectly ordinary young scientist just trying to survive an alien invasion, becoming a One-Man Army in the process.
  • This trope is why it's a very bad idea to surround enemy troops on an open battlefield in the Total War games. If you completely surround an army they will battle to the death, knowing there is no other option. However if they are simply outflanked and overpowered, some will want to rout and retreat to save themselves. This is also why sieges almost always devolve into a final bloody meatgrinder in the city/castle square. Once the defenders fall back there, they know they've got nowhere else to retreat to, so they stand and fight to the last man. The only way to prevent this is to somehow break the entire enemy army before any of them can retreat to the city center. However, if the siege has been long enough and bloody enough, the fight in the city center can result in a Back from the Brink moment, when the enemy army is so exhausted and worn down that they break and run.
  • Applies to the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. Lara Croft, an innocent young archeologist that has never found need to harm another living thing, is forced into a corner by a crazy cult and is forced to fight to survive. This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing Lara to gain a dramatic level of skill in survivalism and combat, and ends up being the single biggest mistake the cultists ever made.
  • Happens often in First-Person Shooters where a capture the flag or capture point game mechanic is used, cornering the opposing team into one last standoff pretty much guarantees that you'll be fighting every single player at once, throwing everything they have at you at once. A good example would be the "red team" in most Team Fortress 2 matches.
  • By the ending of Final Fantasy Crisis Core, Soldier Zack Fair is alone and saddled with a Mako poisoned cadet. He tries to avoid the massive army sent to kill him, only killing when he's forced to fight directly, and just wants to disappear into the city. Then he realizes that he's utterly fucked if he keeps running. Cue Zack taking down the majority of the Shinra Army by himself before his death in the games greatest COA.
  • Taking Roche's path in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has the town of Vergen doing this when an enemy army attacks them. They lose and the town is taken, but at a high price for the attackers (that can also include the attacking army's king.)
  • Used in the opening level of Star Fox: Assault. Team Starfox has been chasing Andrew through the entire level only for him to finally turn around and face them. Peppy even warns the team that you never know what a cornered beast might do. Andrew responds by turning his personal ship into an Andross like copy of himself to begin the boss battle.

  • In Sluggy Freelance, Dr. Shlock is a quivering coward who will pretty much do what you want if you point a gun in his face. But as his Heroic Bastard son, Agent Rammer puts it, when he's backed into a corner, he always pulls through. Dr. Schlock eventually makes his way into becoming one of the world's biggest threats when he runs out of places to hide.

    Web Original 
  • In Worm, the PRT decide that they've had enough of Skitter, so once they find her secret identity they dispatch Dragon and Defiant to apprehend her immediately. The location? In the middle of a high school cafeteria filled to bursting. More disturbingly, the PRT actually wants Skitter to take hostages so they can justify going to such extremes to take her down.
    Skitter: You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • During the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian general Hannibal caused such a situation at Cannae: the battle was one of the worst defeats Rome ever suffered, most of the Carthaginian losses ensued when the Romans noticed they had been surrounded and tried to kill their way out, with about three legions worth of troops escaping the encirclement.
  • D-day was like this for a lot of the soldiers that stormed the beaches. With no possible retreat, the men were forced to move forward or be annihilated. It is said that the green soldiers did better than veterans would have because they took risks that veterans would have been too hesitant to attempt and they were able to keep the advance moving past the kill zones of the beaches.
  • This trope is invoked as the reason why paratroopers and marines the world over are trained to be extra aggressive in their battle tactics. When inserted onto a beach or a drop zone, these troops have nowhere else to go but towards the enemy and attack. Marines can't retreat back into the sea, while paratroopers can't get back into the sky.
  • The famed engagement between Task Force 77.3 (AKA "Taffy 3"), a small American force of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, and Admiral Kurita's Center Force, a large force of battleships and cruisers, during the Battle off Samar in World War II. What should have been one of the most brutal Curb Stomp Battles in modern naval history (Taffy 3's carriers did not even carry armor-piercing bombs or torpedos for use against capital ships) actually ended in a Japanese retreat despite heavy American losses. Essentially, the small force fought back so aggressively, with destroyers closing to point-blank range to launch torpedos and try to cause some damage to the enemy ships with their guns, and fighters and bombers harassing the ship's gunners with fragmentation bombs and strafing runs that the Japanese assumed that they were merely delaying Center Force while reinforcements rushed to the scene. In reality, this was merely a case of the American task force commanders finding themselves backed into a wall.
  • This trope often comes into play in sports. When a team/player is down, and about to lose, you might as well start going for the high-risk, high-return plays, as it doesn't matter if you lose by 1 or 50 points - you've still lost. A hail-mary pass in American Football, for example, is as likely to be picked off as it is to be caught, but if you only have time for one play, it's your only chance, you might as well go for it. And sometimes, it works!