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Cornered Rattlesnake

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"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 a character or a faction that is pressured to the breaking point. Another entity, usually a villain, will bully or threaten the weaker rattlesnake until the snake 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 often throws a wrench into his plans when he has a sudden realization that the weakling he's been tormenting isn't that weak. So the villain 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 trope name comes from the real-life behavior of a rattlesnake when cornered. The human can easily choose to retreat but instead tries to kill the rattlesnake. Cornered, the rattlesnake would attempt to ward off the attacker by rattling its tail. If that doesn't work, it defends 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, meaning it's at least a Mutual Kill as the snake goes down with its attacker.

Sometimes this is a response to a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, Hopeless Boss Fight, or Curb-Stomp Battle. See also Beware the Nice Ones and Neutral No Longer for many heroic or pacifistic examples, with Not-So-Harmless Villain and Villainous Breakdown often serving for antagonist examples (especially ones that are more commonly Dirty Cowards).

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. However, it's a defining trait of a Paper Tiger. Compare Mugging the Monster and Traumatic Superpower Awakening, where the would-be victim shows no outward sign of the threat they pose (in the latter case, they didn't pose a threat until they were attacked). Also compare Burning the Ships, which is intentionally putting your own side in this position. If the 'rattlesnake' knows they will die for retaliating and doesn't care, that's Do Not Go Gentle. If the rattlesnake is a town, it may be the Undefeatable Little Village. If there is a species or several generations of cornered rattlesnakes whose strength is defined by their survival and experience, they Had to Be Sharp.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Attack on Titan, when Marley's rulers declare their intent to slaughter the fragile backwater of Paradis, most of the latter's inhabitants are terrified. But a fraction gets so primally desperate, faced with this certain annihilation, that they dedicate their lives to taking out Marley with the same extreme prejudice that was shown them. And as it turns out, one cell of crazy people can accomplish a lot.
  • Berserk: Griffith's strategy to take the fortress of Doldrey revolves around this, placing the Band of the Hawk with their backs to a river in order to force his men to win, or die. The ferocity that the Band fights with, along with Guts killing the enemy's greatest general and a small force led by Casca taking the fortress while its entire garrison was out on the battlefield (another part of Griffith's strategy as the ephebophilic commander was obsessed with him) causes the Band to accomplish what the generals of Midland had thought impossible and let Midland win the Hundred-Year War.
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba plays this straight with Hantengu, Upper Moon Four and one of the most powerful demons in the setting. Hantengu himself was a frail, old thief and treacherous murderer before he was turned into a demon, and despite his great power he is shown to retain his snivelling, cowardly disposition well after transformation. His Blood Demon Art evolved specifically to counteract this - when faced with danger, Hantengu creates multiple, progressively younger clones of himself, based around the primary emotions - Anger, Joy, Pleasure and Sorrow, while his primary body (now representing his Fear) shrinks and hides as far away from the fighting as it can. If the four initial clones are fought off, Fear can combine them into Hatred, who has access to all their powers combined. As a last resort, Fear can create a final, massive body representing Resentment, which is only used in cases of emergency due to protect Fear directly.
    • This occurs in the previous arc with the Demon Slayers. Almost defeated by the sibling Upper Six duo of Daki and Gyutaro, Uzui, Zenitsu, Inosuke and Tanjiro are all badly beaten by the siblings and are all about to be killed when Gyutaro misjudges Tanjiro's desire to retain his humanity and his care for Nezuko, at which he accidentally gives them all an opening, leading to Uzui and Tanjiro fighting Gyutaro and Zenitsu and Inosuke overwhelming Daki, all in a desperate effort to use this last chance to kill the Demons. They barely succeed with Zenitsu developing his new form and Tanjiro unlocking his Demon Slayer Mark.
  • Dragon Ball Z has this come up regularly for Gohan throughout his childhood. His power spiked when his anger was peaked, and his training usually takes this into account. Piccolo's Die or Fly training entailed putting him into situations that would kill most others, while Goku nominating Gohan to fight Cell was meant as a means to set up conditions for him to go beyond Super Saiyan. In these cases, his life being imperiled by a seemingly insurmountable foe leads to him overcoming his limitations.
  • Holyland uses this for both Yuu and Masaki:
    • Early on, when approached by a thug, Yuu would beg them to just leave him alone, only for said thug to push him and try to attack... At which point he'd fight back with surprising power. He eventually outgrows this after his rampage following Shin's No-Holds-Barred Beatdown… Mostly, as when Yagi threatens Mai he starts feeling again in this situation... And goes on a new rampage. This is the whole reason Yuu became strong: in middle school, he was bullied to the point he quit school and even came very close to killing himself, and unable to live with himself, he taught himself basic boxing and started training.
    • As shown in the flashback of how Masaki became a delinquent, his sempai at the boxing club, jealous of his talent, allied with some delinquents to beat him up and make him beg for forgiveness... And Masaki, who couldn't stand anyone calling him a coward, let alone being forced to feel like one, found them one by one to beat them up and take back the begging. His later rampage that made him the strongest street fighter in the area was caused by the school finding out about his assaults and expelling him from the boxing club, putting him in this place again.
  • The protagonist of Killing Bites isn't a therianthrope. He isn't especially strong or brave, either, and he knows it. So for all his life, he's just followed the orders of other people. Then he's roped into serving the Obviously Evil zaibatsu. He does his job perfectly, careful to never offend or overstep or question. They assassinate him anyway. Just because it's convenient for them. When he survives due to a twist of fate, he is mad, and very, very committed to taking out the zaibatsu. They threw away the only incentive he had to comply with people like them.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2016), Zant has become so reliant on Ganondorf’s power that he breaks down in fear whenever a sufficiently powerful foe approaches, such as the Hero's Shade or Link. In the end, he manages to pull off a Curb Stomp Cushion against Link.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion has its main character, Shinji Ikari. Usually weak, spineless, and far too kind for his own good, he's still capable of enough berserk rage to slaughter Shamshel and Zeruel on his own. Or cause a world-ending apocalypse with a little help from Mom.
  • In Rebuild World, Akira is (in his own words) a coward. He can't rest well until everything threatening him as a bullet in its head. Because of this, he's extremely trigger-happy when threatened, taking life with a frightening level of ease. Even when backed into a corner, he's so determined to survive that he'll never give up so long as his chance of winning isn't zero.

    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 
  • Aberration (Naruto): Rae's martial arts are meant to be used by somebody who doesn't have a lot of physical strength, and focus on disabling and/or escaping threats... or turning their own attacks against the assailant.
  • In All Mixed Up!, Mariana Mag spills her backstory to Otto and backs him up against the railing on the platform he's standing on as she does so. A thought forms in his head of how the keyboard on her belt might help in defeating her, but he then tosses that idea and decides to go full Leeroy Jenkins instead, charging at her with all he's got.
  • Blackkat's Reverse: While Kurama doesn't want to kill anyone on Kakashi's 'Freak Squad', when he's outnumbered by their group, he does everything he can to escape.
  • Dominoes: Hakuba eventually realizes, much to his horror, that he helped push Shinichi into this position by helping Yuusaku try and trap Shinichi in a Gilded Cage.
  • A Game of Cat and Cat: Namedropped when Soma, Kazuya, Mina, and Julius find themselves surrounded by government agents, and Soma realizes that Kazuya, who is the most agressive and paranoid of them, is completely terrified. Instead of sitting around and letting Kazuya attack them, he grabs him and runs away, threatening him not to do anything stupid.
  • Played for Laughs in 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?
  • After resigning the Vale Secret Service in In the Kingdom's Service because he refused a Suicide Mission (specifically to sacrifice himself and his team to stop the Breach), Jaune is hunted by the VSS because he could leak information about them to Ozpin or Cinder Fall, both of whom he'd been tasked with infiltrating. When they kidnap Ruby, Jaune snaps and rats out their existence and location to Roman, Cinder, and Ozpin, causing all three factions to attack at once.
  • Living in a Frog World: Frank Ramirez has no combat experience whatsoever, yet in the first chapter, he manages to bring down the giant mantis creature threatening to kill him through sheer adrenaline, much to his own astonishment.
  • In Purple Days, experience has taught Joff that he must deal with Baelish and Slynt ASAP the moment the loop resets. On the other hand, killing both will push Renly to desperation to the point he'll try to murder all Stark and Lannister presence in the Red Keep the moment Robert dies — something Joff can't change either. He limits himself to killing Baelish to stop this.

    Films — Animation 
  • 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.
  • Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio: Spazzatura is abused by Count Volpe, but never fights back. When Count Volpe tries to burn Pinocchio, Spazzatura defies Volpe to save him. Volpe becomes furious, and draws his sword against Spazzatura, backing him and Pinocchio up against a cliff edge and declaring, "You will betray me no more!" Driven to a point where it's come to either standing up against Volpe or dying, Spazzatura stops cowering, his expression shifts to of one of hostility, and he launches himself at Volpe, attacking and overpowering him.
  • 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, watching the shadows closely reveals that he goes down fighting.
  • 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.

    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.
    • 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 of 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.
      • As Gotham's crime rate has gone down, the police have become complacent and lazy in their victory, with high-ranking officers being far more concerned about their careers than doing the right thing or catching criminals. Then Bane traps most of the police underground for months, turns their city into a mini tin-pot dictatorship, cuts it off from the rest of the country, and plans to eventually blow it up via a nuclear explosion, with the months before the explosion goes off being nothing other than a cruel Hope Spot. When Batman and Gordon finally free the cops, they're finally willing to go all out and take action despite the dangers, when before they were content to sit back and rest on their laurels.
  • Django Unchained: After Calvin Candie manages to outwit Django and Schultz (i.e., his Hyper-Competent Sidekick outwitted them and told Calvin their plan), he still gives Django’s wife to them, but forces them to pay him an exorbitant amount of money. Candie lets the victory go to his head and just keeps pushing on the already-beaten heroes, gloating obnoxiously and bullying them until Schultz loses his cool and shoots Calvin dead in a blind rage, not caring that he'll die as well.
  • In Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Sammy tries to warn Dora off by telling her there's nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. Dora seems not to understand the point, commenting that a healthy one is more dangerous.
  • In A History of Violence, Jack repeatedly gets harassed by bullies at school, but always manages to Turn the Other Cheek and walk away. Jack presumes that fighting back will just lead to trouble, and his dad Tom always made sure to instill a non-violent approach in Jack. However, once two of the bullies physically prevent Jack from leaving school by shoving him, Jack snaps and beats the hell out of them in a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, sending both of the bullies to the hospital with severe injuries. Jack also turns out to be right about the fight leading to trouble when Surprisingly Realistic Outcome occurs: he gets suspended from school for fighting, and the parents of the bullies are considering criminal charges. It's part of the movie's Central Theme about the realistic consequences of violent behavior.
  • Killa in John Wick: Chapter 4 doesn't seem like a physical threat, being girthy and asthmatic. Indeed, he spends a lot of time running from John and ordering his mooks to defend him after the card game. When John has him cornered, however, he turns out to be more than a physical match for the Baba Yaga, actually getting the better of him and even nearly killing him.
  • In The Shining, the terrified Wendy only hits Jack with the baseball bat when he gets too close and after multiple warnings.
  • Star Wars:
  • Implied with this line from William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, said by Romeo when the whole city police is surrounding him at the entrance to Juliet's grave:
    Romeo: Tempt not a desperate man!

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A rare villainous version in Beast Tamer. The extremely entitled Edgar Fromage has spent his whole life accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants, and being able to inflict violence on those who don't comply with immunity until he gets it. Then he runs into protagonist Rein Shroud and demands the two girls Sora and Runa, who look like pre-teen children, with no on-screen indication that he knows they aren't, and this is the first time in his life violence fails. This puts him on Rein's radar and the protagonist retaliates with extreme prejudice, taking apart Edgar's entire corrupt knight order and coming for him in force. Trapped in his own mansion, Edgar grabs a magic ring with a powerful curse on it and hurls an instant death attack at Rein. When that fails, he turns himself into a demon to try and even the odds.
  • 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.
  • Discworld:
    "the trouble with small furry animals in a corner is that, just occasionally, one of them is a mongoose."
    • While Colon and Nobby will not fight if given any choice, if they are forced to fight they will do so with the ferocity of desperation and the skill of two men who have spent their whole lives on the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Harry Potter: Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail, is usually underestimated by everyone due to cowardly nature, but shows to be surprisingly cunning when backed into a corner. Case in point, when Sirius caught up to him to avenge James and Lily's deaths, he started screaming so everyone around would think Sirius was the one who betrayed his friends, cut off his own finger to leave a trail, and blasted a wall to escape into the sewers in his rat form.
  • Heralds of Valdemar:
    • Valdemar doesn't have much of an army or any desire for one. What they do have is fate literally on their side, fate which manifests in the form of magically Gifted children who're typically born at just the right time to fend off opportunistic invaders — often in spectacular fashion. Quality beats quantity, here. Of course, every few generations, a Karsite or Hardornen monarch gets greedy and has to be reminded that Valdemar is too tough a nut to crack — however idyllic it is.
    • In Brightly Burning, Lavan's Traumatic Superpower Awakening comes after school bullies decide to punish him for finding ways to avoid them. Consequently he burns the school down and kills several people. The experience horrifies the gentle boy and he's very unwilling to kill again, but he's still pressed into the war with Karse. After an attacker blinds his mentor while Lan dithers, he decides he will never hesitate again and starts killing enemy soldiers by the hundreds; It Gets Easier and this is not good for him, or anyone else. The result is he incinerates an entire Karsite army along with himself, which ends the war in a day as the horrific shock and terror convinces their masters to retreat from a victory they were so certain they would get, and Valdemar is again left alone.
  • 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 by ganging up on him before he decimates them utterly.
  • 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.
  • Slacker: Whenever Chuck gets cornered by enemies in a videogame, he desperately lashes out against his attackers in a way that either quickly gets him killed or somehow makes him a One-Man Army capable of wiping out all his enemies.
  • Sauron in Tolkien's Legendarium is this. While generally preferring to remain behind the lines and strategize or scheme in the shadows, when the chips are down and he is backed into a corner, he comes out with full strength. The Numenoreans underestimated him, and he managed to ensnare them into his service. And in The war of the Last Alliance, he came down from Barad-Dur to fight and killed both Elendil and Gil-Galad (although he also temporarily died in the duel).
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Blackadder: Edmund Blackadder becomes this in "Money" when his enormous debt to the Black Bank comes due. With the Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells breathing down his neck and the Queen stealing what little cash he's able to scrape together Edmund slumps on the floor and asks Baldrick if people will miss him when he's gone. Baldrick replies that everyone hates him so much, they'll be glad to see the back of him. This enrages Edmund so much he leaps to his feet and comes up with a plan to blackmail the Bishop just to show people not to mess with him.
  • Breaking Bad: After getting marked for death by his former boss, Walt is about to flee with his family when he finds out his wife, not knowing the trouble they are in, gave the money they needed to flee to Ted Beneke. With no option left but to fight, Walt resorts to an utterly ruthless assassination plan that involves (non-fatally) poisoning a child and using a crippled man as a (willing) suicide bomber. The plan works. Gus might have survived if he had left Walt a way out.
  • At the end of Chernobyl, KGB head Charkov cuts Valery Legasov from his friends and his life's work, ensuring that everything good he did and does will be credited to others, and confidently says that Legasov doesn't have the courage to try blowing the whistle on the RBMK reactors again. But at that point, Legasov is already dying, so nothing the KGB could do frightens him more than a repeat of Chernobyl. So, he commits his memoirs to cassette tape and hangs himself so that the shock of his death will force his warning into the public sphere.
  • 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. Cersei is 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 uses the fantasy equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction to bomb the court where she would have been tried with all her enemies inside 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 (2016) 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]
  • Rome:
    • The army of Pompey the Great has cornered what remains of Julius Caesar's forces in Greece, and are waiting for them to fade away from starvation, disease, and desertion. However, the senators allied to Pompey urge him to attack and finish off Caesar with a military victory, which will look better for propaganda. It turns out to be a mistake as when faced with a straight-up fight Caesar wins, turning the tide in the Civil War.
      Caesar: We must win or die. Pompey's men have other options.
    • The trope is lampshaded earlier when Pompey thinks that Caesar's call for terms is a bluff because he's holed up with a single legion. However, Caesar crosses the Rubicon and steals a march on Pompey before his forces are ready, forcing him to retreat from Rome.
      Pompey: Caesar is bluffing. He wishes to appear supremely confident. Evidently he is desperately weak, weaker than we thought. This is a last-ditch attempt to frighten us into making concessions while he still has the semblance of an army. He's weak, Cicero. Dying.
      Cicero: Is that not when all the proverbs tell us to be wary? Does not the dying serpent bite deepest?

    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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Knowingly defied by the Leaping Death, a Tyranid special character from Warhammer 40,000: Sent to infiltrate an Imperial world, it figured out that killing the Cardinal leading the planet would only make him a martyr and make the planet's population fight back harder. So instead of killing the Cardinal, it went after his bodyguards instead — appearing out of nowhere to brutally murder them one at a time and leaving the poor bastard spattered in their blood. The Cardinal's sanity didn't last long, and the planet's demoralized population became easy pickings for the hive fleet.

    Video Games 
  • Fate/Grand Order:
    • Medea Lily admits and Jason himself shows in Solomon that it's only when the chips are down and he's under pressure with his life on the line do his traits as a master commander and strategist come out. His Inspiration at Death's Door skill means that he will get flashes of inspiration when in a life-threatening situation. He hates that skill since he can only get these flashes of inspiration when acting like he is throwing his life away.
    • Director Goredolf is the type toe become more competent the more pressure he's under. As he gets used to what is everyday life for Chaldea, the more of his skills and positive qualities come to light. Compare his Prologue to the Lostbelts self where he's begging for anyone to help him to the Tokugawa Labyrinth event where he punches Beast III/L.
  • Produce: This is how Sayaka works in-game: it's only if she's on the verge of death that she actively begins striking back against monsters, which can potentially disable them for the rest of the playthrough.
  • Total War:
    • This is a part of many entries' Morale Mechanic. On an open battlefield, a unit that takes casualties or has scary things happen to it like Flaming Arrows, War Elephants, charges from Dreaded enemy generals, etc. will turn and leg it rather than fight a losing battle. But if a unit is completely surrounded by enemies, or is making a Last Stand during The Siege, that unit will enter "fighting to the death" mode, and will not only hold its ground, the soldiers will gain some combat bonuses from the sheer desperation of their circumstances, potentially letting them fend off their opponents. The moral of the story is that it's better to leave enemies with an out and run them down while they flee, rather than prevent them from fleeing in the first place.
    • In Total War: Warhammer, armies typically have the option of retreating if attacked, but if pursued and attacked again in the same turn, they must fight and will be completely wiped out if defeated. Under these circumstances, the Skaven lord Tretch Craventail grants his army a hefty bonus to their melee attack to represent their viciousness in desperation. It also provides a gameplay incentive to do what's in character for Tretch when faced with a strong opponent - run away.

    Web Comics 
  • 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 No Evil, Quetzecoatl is a cowardly albino rattlesnake. He typically flees from danger, but when feeling cornered, will sometimes suddenly lash out and bite.
  • Discussed in Tales From My D&D Campaign. When the party encounter the raj Lord Kintemazu, he and his fellow rajs know, thanks to their unparalled mastery of divination magic, that if it comes to a fight, Lord Kintemazu will certainly lose, but equally certainly will kill 1.5 members of the party. The rajs admit that this is a poor exchange for them, as they gain nothing from the deaths of the PCs, but point out that it's not exactly a favorable outcome for the party either.

    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!
  • The early months of World War I were like the traditional wars of old with cavalry charges and infantry charges as the norm, cavalry and infantry charging into battle accompanied by a military band, and a rapidly changing battle line. This began to change with the First Battle Of The Aisne, in September 1914 when the Germans, who had been soundly beaten at the Marne and sent into disarray by the British and French cavalry charges. The Germans merely dug trenches at the Aisne just hoping to hold off as long as possible, believing they would face inevitable crushing defeat, but the fact that the Allies couldn't finish them off set the tone for the rest of the war. The Allies tried to flank them and surround them which led to the Race To The Sea. After early 1915, traditional style cavalry and infantry battles became increasingly rare and what started out as cornered and fearful Germans just trying to delay the inevitable ended up turning the western front into the infamous four-year meat grinder it's known for today. Most victories gained by charge attacks would end up being a Pyrrhic Victory in some form, either through high casualties or it being short-lived before reinforcements showed up.
    • It wasn't uncommon for rumors to try to invoke this among its soldiers in World War I. For example, the Canadians became highly feared by their enemies among the Western Front, and some German officers took advantage of this by claiming that these terrifying opponents fittingly would kill any prisoners they took in the hopes this would encourage their troops fight to the death.
  • The First Battle of the Piave during World War I was this: the Italian Fourth Army and the remnants of the Second (shattered about a week earlier during the Battle of Caporetto) had been retreating to the Piave river when they received orders to rally on the nearby Grappa massif and fight a holding action until the rest of the army and French and British reinforcements have deployed on the Adige river, with the mountain making further retreats extremely difficult... And the Italians fought their "holding action" with the intent to stop the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans right there, succeeding against even their own high command's expectations.
  • The Battle of Izbushensky during World War II saw the Italian Savoia Cavalleria (a cavalry regiment) surrounded by over three times their numbers in Soviet forces, that also enjoyed a firepower superiority. The Italians charged a squadron at a time, and, also surprised by the fact the Italians had more firepower than expected (the Savoia being supported by four cannons detached from the Voloire Horse Artillery regiment), the Soviets routed at the third (out of four).
  • Invoked at Stalingrad: the Soviet forces' motto was "No land for us beyond the Volga", so they fought more fiercely for it. Also, they knew that if they retreated the Germans could bring their artillery forward enough to shell them as they crossed the river.
  • A famous example from Chinese history is the Battle of Tao River, where the Han general Han Xin (no relation; the two "Han"s use different characters and inflections) dealt with the Zhao kingdom's army, which outnumbered the Han troops ten times over, by digging in his forces with their backs to a river that they couldn't cross. Nobody gave Han Xin a prayer, but desperation-fueled aggression allowed the Han troops to fight the Zhao army to a standstill, which promptly turned into a complete rout when the Zhao forces retreated and realized Han Xin had already taken over their camp in the meantime. To this day, 背水一戰note  (to fight with one's back to the river) is a Chinese idiom used to describe this trope.
  • As explained in the trope description, rattlesnakes will lash out when cornered, but they aren't the only animals in nature to display this behavior. Many venomous animals, in fact, prefer to actively avoid biting large threats (their venom is costly for their bodies to manufacture and they prefer to save it for hunting over self-defense), and will only do so when they have no other option:
    • Black widow and brown recluse spiders, though famous for the deadliness of their venom, will seek to hide from large animals and humans, and usually will only bite when either actively provoked, or unknowingly pressed against the skin. And even then, many of those bites are dry.
    • The famous image of cobras standing upright and flaring their crests? That's cobra-talk for "I feel cornered, and you need to GO AWAY before I ruin your day." Considering how quick cobras are to bite when the warning is not heeded, and how deadly many of them are, you definitely don't want to threaten a cobra.
    • Even non-venomous animals can be extremely dangerous when cornered. That line about a cornered/wounded fox being the most dangerous thing in the world? That's not an old wives' tale. A cornered fox will ruin your day if you give it no other option. There have been reports of wounded foxes fighting off animals several times their size, and animal control officers will always tranquilize a fox if they get called in to take care of one.
    • In general, this is why it's recommended to let professionals deal with injured wild or feral animals. Animals don't usually understand when people are trying to help them, especially if they have limited experience with humans: all they understand is that a dangerous predator is approaching and that they have limited capacity to flee, and so fighting for their life becomes the only option in their minds.
    • Even pets who know and trust their owners can end up feeling cornered by basic husbandry: everyone has heard of the proverbial cat who claws when loaded into its carrier or the proverbial dog who has to be muzzled for grooming. Again, animals don't always have the capacity to understand that something they find unpleasant is done to help them. A lot of training tips for acclimating pets to these things centres around helping the animal not feel cornered, such as leaving the kitty carrier out at all times so it becomes just another den and not something the cat associates with the terror of the vet's.


Video Example(s):


The Reich bares its teeth

With Nazi Germany being pushed further back into Europe, Karl Fairburne narrates how the German Armed Forces are becoming more and more unpredictable and desperate for anything that can turn the war in their favor.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / CorneredRattlesnake

Media sources: