In many, many works, when poison comes into play, it is the villain who primarily uses it, and indeed, use of poison by a character is seen as very suspect at best, and a strong sign that the character is evil at worst. Very few heroes (apart from antiheroicCombat Pragmatists) will use poison, considering it dishonest and dishonorable, and if they do use it, it's likely to be something aimed to knock people out such as tranquilizer darts rather than something deadly like arsenic or cyanide, which ties into Thou Shalt Not Kill.
It's not hard to see why poison is considered evil by many. The notion of normally life-giving food or water becoming something that can hurt or kill people, for example, terrifies us, and the use of it is quite sensibly banned in many cultures. Many rulers have fallen to poison, and just as many take precautions against it, such as employing food tasters. We often use the word "poison" figuratively to describe something destructive or corruptive, such as "poisoning someone's mind" or "poisoning the well" in a debate. Latin ("veneficus"), Greek ("pharmakeion"), Hebrew ("kashaph", "qesem") and Navajo ("’ánt’įįhnii") all derive their words for witch(craft) from roots that have to do with poison or poisoners.
Poison is seen as the most vile form of murder also because using it definitely shows mens rea, mind to murder and both intention and determination to commit a murder. Poison is also a weak person's weapon: using it does not require neither physical prowess nor mental courage.
There may also be the matter of Trial by Combat. The conceit, particularly in French chivalric romances and their ilk, is that in such a "trial", God will guide the hand and blade of whichever one of the two is in the right. Poisoned weapons, therefore, could be interpreted as an attempt to usurp God's judgement and authority, and/or a lack of faith in that judgement and authority always being right.
The use of poison in combat, such as Poisoned Weapons, is widely seen as cheating and dirty fighting, primarily employed by cowardly villains or villainous Combat Pragmatists who care nothing about honor, only about results — usually the poison-using villain's aim is to either murder someone, gain an unfair advantage, or render someone helpless who would otherwise have wiped the floor with them in a stand-up fight. Depending on the effects of the poison in question, things can get awfully dissonant when other non-poisonous abilities exist (blinding flashes or holy power that weakens The Undead, for example) that do pretty much the same thing as what the poison does and are used quite freely by heroes to bring down their opposition. Because of this, poison's limitation to villains can sometimes take on the status of Designated Evil.
Historically, this trope is most traditional in Western Europe and its descendants — others rarely cared unless there was a breach of Sacred Hospitality or fair duel. In tropical regions hunting with poisons was widespread; in Hindu tradition poisonous critters are just another fact of life, and cobras even revered sometimes. China didn't see poisons as something special, nor did Steppe peoplesnote for the authors of Temujin's biography the only dramatic point was in how his loyal follower did Suck Out the Poison, Russians shruggednote even the author of "The Word of Igor's Campaign", a thinly veiled anti-Horde pamphlet, offhandedly mentioned poisoned arrows once without any judgement. Americans risk to run intoThe Savage Indian with it, but the choice of setting usually averts this.
By the same token, this trope is ubiquitous in Medieval European Fantasy, but never applied in Hungry Jungle settings, for minimum of realism and Darker and Edgier tone.
See also Trying to Catch Me Fighting Dirty and Poisoned Weapons.
Note: This is not just a villain who uses poison; This is where the use of poison is seen as a villainous trait.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
In Noir, Shaoli delivers deadly poison with a mere scratch of her fingernails. She's treated as objectively villainous, and her request to join Soldats is turned down...by Kuroe's blade.
Jessie and James of Team Rocket have used an Ekans/Arbok and Koffing/Weezing in past regions. Jessie now owns a Seviper and James an Amoonguss.
Paul, a Jerkass trainer who puts his Pokémon through Training from Hell, has a Drapion, a Nidoking and a Magmortar that knows Smog.
Two of the commanders of Team Galactic, Saturn and Jupiter, have a Toxicroak and a Skuntank, respectively. In addition, the Galactic Grunts each own at least one Golbat.
Hunter J's minions also have Golbat and Crobat, while J herself uses a Drapion and Ariados in battle.
Inverted with Ash's Muk, however. It's a very friendly Pokémon that loves giving hugs.
Played with in One Piece via Magellan, the warden of the prison Impel Down. His Devil Fruit, the Venom-Venom Fruit, allows him to generate poison from his body at will. While definitely an antagonist, as the Impel Down arc has Luffy breaking into the prison to rescue his brother, Magellan is also the last line of defense keeping many of the worst criminals in the One Piece worldnote plus some people on the bad side of the Government from seeing the light of day.
There are also plenty of villain who aren't afraid of using poisoned weapons, including Don Krieg, Crocodile, Wanze and Duval.
The few times that poison has been used in Berserk, it has been the province of villains, such as Adon Corbowitz's use of poison in his duel with Casca, or the conspiracy to kill Griffith.
In Fairy Tail, one of the many "second generation" Dragon Slayers that Natsu encounters is Cobra, the Poison Dragon Slayer. He is, unsurprisingly, evil.
Played with in 9 to 5, when Violet fantasizes about killing Mr. Hart. She imagines herself as a Snow White-style Friend to All Living Things, yet bumps him off by poisoning his coffee, to the general rejoicing of animated Woodland Creatures and desk-chained employees. An animated vaporous skull-and-crossbones appears above the coffee cup when she pours in the toxin.
Though Kill Bill has assassins as major characters, Elle Driver, the most evil and treacherous of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, is the only one in the saga to make extensive use of poison. She tries to poison the Bride while she's in her four-year coma, only to be warned off by Bill, who considers the act to "lower" them, and later uses poison in her killing of Budd (who she sics a black mamba on) and Pai Mei (who she gets rid of by poisoning his fish heads).
In A Song of Ice and Fire, poison is commonly seen as the weapon of a coward or a woman. Or, when it's convenient to blame one for a poisoning, a dwarf.
Oberyn Martell's tendency to poison his spears, even in duels and trials by combat, is seen as highly dishonorable, and it's mentioned right up there with his reputation as a Depraved Bisexual. While he's a Hot-Blooded jerk, he's not as evil as his reputation would imply.
Mentioned in Interesting Times: Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde are appalled at the use of poisoned food, because while the approved barbarian method of trickery is inviting your enemy over to a feast, get him roaring drunk then kill him (any barbarian stupid enough to fall for it deserving it), you never know when you might get hungry yourself.
Much discussed in the Dorothy L. Sayers novel Strong Poison. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for poisoning her lover Phillip Boyes with arsenic. Despite a mistrial, she is widely assumed to be guilty and vilified on that account. Norman Urquhart's cook comments on this to Bunter, "...but the horrors of slow poisoning, that's the work of a fiend."
In Raiders of Gor one of the five claimants to being the ruler of the city-state of Port Kar is a skilled poisoner and is looked down upon. (He's also a bit fey, which doesn't help.) After being exiled from the city, in Hunters of Gor he secretly supplies poisoned swords to enemy fighters, and they poison Tarl, paralyzing him. In Maurauders of Gor the leader of those enemy fighters approaches Tarl to give him an antidote; when the king of their city-state had learned of the treachery he forced the other man to create an antidote, then poisoned him to test it. On Gor generally, poison is dismissed as a woman's weapon.
In Dune Feyd Harkonnen is shown using poison frequently: weakening his slave gladiators so he always wins his fights, attempting to poison his uncle the Baron through the thigh of a sex slave, and using a secret poison needle in his belt buckle in his combat against Paul Mua'dib.
The Eyes of The Dragon has sorceror Flagg utilize an excruciating poison (one that he's even wary about) on the king to put his younger Enfant Terrible son on the throne, framing the king's elder son for the crime. Why? Because he can.
Subverted in an obscure 1980's series of historical novels by author William Morrell. The heroine (a Dutch noblewoman who has been trained in ninjutsu while living in Japan) uses poison to kill an evil Spanish nobleman that she is being forced to marry.
Also done in the first book in The Mark of the Lion series, where young noblewoman Julia poisons her violently abusive suitor to be rid of him. It's tempting to count this as an inversion since he was such a vicious brute, but considering Julia goes on to condemn the heroine Hadassah to be fed to lions in the Colosseum, it's still a pretty straight example (at least until both women get better in the second book).
Inverted in Agatha Christie's Halloween Party. When Hercule Poirot asks the gentle, kind Miranda how she would kill someone, she replies that she would use poison—specifically a sleeping draught—because she wouldn't want to cause anyone any pain.
Inverted in Merlin in which it is heroic Merlin who uses poison to try and kill Morgana, thus breaking a near-fatal spell over Camelot that she was inadvertently causing. Played straight later, when Morgana uses poison to kill a witness to her Face-Heel Turn.
Also played straight very early on, when Nimueh tries to kill Arthur with poison-Merlin got it instead, and Arthur had to go find the Magic Antidote.
Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Reunion": Chancellor K'mpok announces he's dying, murdered by a slow-acting poison. It's stated that a Klingon who kills without showing his face has no honor and must not be allowed to lead the Empire. Picard is tasked with finding the killer and preventing him ascending to the Chancellorship.
In Babylon 5, the Centauri, who are not an evil race per se but certainly a very "dark grey" race, treasure poison needles the way humans treasure swords or Mimbari treasure their fighting staffs.
Dungeons & Dragons: While poison itself is usually treated as no more inherently evil than any other weapon, evil characters tend to have more options when it comes to specialising in it.
In AD&D 1st Edition Assassins (who were always Evil) had special abilities with learning about and using poisons.
Evil clerics could use poison, non-evil clerics could not. Likewise, evil bards could use poison, non-evil ones couldn't.
Any non-assassin NPC would assume anyone with Poisoned Weapons were assassins and attack them, call for the city watch or both. Meanwhile assassins won't like when people break their "monopoly."
Some suggestions on how DM's should handle poison use:
It is also likely that the DM will establish sanctions regarding the use of poisons on a continuing basis, i.e. characters of good alignment cannot use such toxic substances as it constitutes foul and unfair practice; or characters found with poisoned weapons will be immediately slain and their corpses burned and ashes scattered. In a similar vein, most communities view poisoning and poisons as highly undesirable due to the difficulty of protecting against ingestion of such fatal substances. Any individual (or group) making indiscriminate use of poison will have social pressure and/or legal action brought against him or her.
Use of a Dagger of Venom (which injected poison) could cause alignment problems for Good aligned characters.
In 2nd Edition all of the references above were removed except for the Dagger of Venom. Now a few Good critters like Couatls used lethal poisons too.
The Always Chaotic Evil Anti-Paladin class in an early Dragon Magazine article. An Anti-Paladin was an "aficionado of the fine art of poisoning," who considered "poisoning to be both an aesthetic pleasure and a means of artistic expression." He used poison at every opportunity, including to test a new poison just distilled for him, to determine if his stock of vintage poisons was still potent or simply to see if he can get away with it.
In 3rd Edition, using poison is still generally evil. Like previous editions, Poison Use as an ability (apply poisons to weapons without the risk of poisoning yourself) is found mostly in evil-only classes, though races like Warforged duplicate the effect by simply being immune to poison.
A non-lethal knockout venom exists that is the exception: It has no worse side effects than "unconscious for 2d4 hours", and the books specifically mention that even paladins could use that one with little moral quandary, provided the intention is to knock someone out rather than kill them (like capturing a criminal for courts). Of course, in a fine bit of irony, it's called Drow poison and is relatively unknown on the surface - the Drow use it for live captures of slaves.
The Book of Vile Darkness introduces a few magical poisons that are literally evil, called Psychic Poison Oils, meant for use by Assassins.
The Pathfinder Alchemist is alignment-unrestricted, and receives the Poison Use skill, so poison's evilness has been diluted a bit.
In 4th Edition, poison isn't evil any more, and anyone can use it with impunity.
In Warhammer, it is notable how much more common poisoned attacks, weapons and spells are among the Forces of Destruction. Witch Elves, Dark Elf and Skaven Assassins, Ghouls, Crypt Horrors, Gutter Runners, Plaguebearers, Forest Goblins, some Forsaken and Chaos Champions to name but a few - virtually all of the Forces of Destruction have plentiful access to poisons; whereas of the Forces of Order, only the Lizardmen use them, only really getting a pass because they are jungle-dwellers (when one sees a blowdart, it's expected to be poisoned). Dwarfs, High Elves, Empire, Bretonnians and even Wood Elves don't have any poisoned attacks at all.
In Fire Emblem, only enemies can use Poison weapons, unless you somehow manage to swipe one off them (and in some games they end reverting to normal weapons if you do that). Averted in Radiant Dawn, after defeating a lategame boss with a poisoning magic tome you get it and can use it to poison enemies.
In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Izuka urges the party to capture a nearby prison camp by dumping poisons in the camp's water supply. The protagonists disapprove, claiming that not only will they will lose the support of the citizenry for it, but it makes no sense from a strategic stand point (the mission is to liberate the prisoners to gain a manpower boost, which is impossible when they are dead.).
Also, as of Generation V, there are actually no Poison-type Legendary Pokémon, not counting Arceus holding the Poison plate, while every other type has at least one Legendary.
In addition, in the first games the only ghost types were also poison types and they were somewhat evil (possessing channelers in the Lavender Tower).
There's at least one Poison type on the obligatory team of bad guys in each installment of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, though there's also a few neutral/good Poison types present in each, as well.
In World of Warcraft, the rogue class can use Poisoned Weapons. The only two playable races who are unable to be the rogue class are the Tauren on the Horde side and the Draenei on the Alliance side. Each of these two races is the most noble race among their respective faction.
However, both of those races can be Hunters, and shoot poisoned arrows at people with impunity.
Averted in The Reconstruction, plenty of characters with Noxious skills and affinities are perfectly nice people.
In the Ace Attorney series, there are at least three incidents involving poison and beverages. There is also a case involving poisoned cold medicine and a case involving poisoned nail polish. All are the work of villains. Phoenix Wright says at one point that the two things he cannot forgive are poisoning and betrayal. Though he's pretty justified in his opinion: One of those cases turned out to be a plot to murder him.
Zig-Zagged in Assassin's Creed. In the first game, the eponymous creed specifically forbids the use of poison; in the second game, however, it's stated that the Assassins have adopted the use of poison in order to adapt to changing times. (Twisting the trope further is the fact that poison is one of the less subtle weapons in the protagonist's arsenal - a poisoned foe will go berserk and attack everyone around him before dying!)
In Final Fantasy VI, Kefka's use of poison at Doma (read: "mass murder of an entire city"), even in war, is the point that the Empire's soldiers and citizens consider him to have crossed the Moral Event Horizon. That said, your characters can learn Poison-elemental magic fine.
In Emperor: Battle for Dune, both the evil Harkonnen and the decidedly amoral Ordos use weapons based on toxins and poison, as do the tleilaxu. The noble Atreides and the fremen, meanwhile, do not.
Averted in AdventureQuest Worlds. Rogues of either alignment will use poison against their enemies, and one of the most skilled poison-makers in Lore, Alina, is also one of the most kind-hearted and sweet-natured people of the setting as well.
During the tournament in The Legend of Dragoon, if you lose something will happen that makes you the winner by default. Both of the opponents dubbed to be cheating did so by using poison.
Inverted in Axe Cop, where it's the good guy who poisons everyone. He seems to have a poison for every villain he comes across with some bizarre method to get it into them.
In United Kingdom, before capital punishment was abolished 1964, there was an unwritten rule that poisoners were always hanged. Poisoning was considered as the most vile form of murder, and poisoners were never pardoned. Albert Pierrepoint, the most notorious British executioner, mentioned in his memoirs that all poisoners he hanged died as cowards.
According to Pierrepoint, those murderers who had committed their crime with knife, faced the noose most brave, while all poisoners broke and whined when they were escorted to the gallows.