Some work towards crushing their opponents. Others, though, prefer to just step back and watch them live on. This is "Cruel Mercy" — sparing one's enemy (or, in some examples, even actively keeping them alive) as a punishment rather than a reward.
Heroes rarely kill their enemies: they either practice Thou Shalt Not Kill or have a moral friend remind them "If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!" if they ever get too tempted. However, some heroes are creative. Much like a torturer using a Cool and Unusual Punishment, the hero does forgive the villain, or at least spare his life, but does so only to inflict suffering and/or enact some poetic justice.
Villains will also do this. If they are doing it for revenge, their aim will be to make the hero feel what they've gone through. Some are mental — rather than wishing to hear So Proud of You, it's their arch-enemy's disapproval they start to crave. Other villains are trying to make the character break down — they subject them to a series of Mind Rapes and make them watch as they destroy what's precious to them, all in an attempt to push them beyond the Despair Event Horizon. Maybe they want to see the heroes cry, or bring them over to The Dark Side. Some villains delight in showing the hero to be Not So Stoic, or they wonder what will happen if they Teach Him Anger... or they just enjoy ignoring the hero's repeated pleas to Get It Over With.
There is no typical Cruel Mercy; each is tailored to the person for maximum effect. However, there are a few repeating variations. Sometimes, one is just allowed to live, especially if he believes Might Makes Right and Asskicking Equals Authority, and now that he isn't the strongest, his self-esteem is non-existent. Similarly, some villains lose it because Good Hurts Evil and Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, so the hero's mercy is a kind of Brown Note. For others, the hero may force them into a mundane life where they go through a daily mental Humiliation Conga. Still, more might refuse to take a life themselves but won't deny others — especially those who have been wronged by the villain — their own chance. In some situations, the hero may decide that being left to live with the consequences of his actions is the most fitting punishment for the villain. And sometimes, if the villain is too dangerous to let free, he is trapped in a Tailor-Made Prison along with the people he hates most in the world, or with a view of something he despises or which upsets him...
Usually, the villain or one of the hero's friends will ask "Why did you let me/him live?" Expect the hero to give a vivid description of how they believe they are being much crueler this way. Might also overlap with Not Worth Killing if the intended message is used to insult the value of the person being spared.
See also Bait the Dog. Not to be confused with Villain's Dying Grace. Contrast Mercy Kill, which aims to do the exact opposite, Do with Him as You Will, where the hero only spares the villain to let others kill him, and Sparing the Final Mook, where the hero grants mercy to a usually harmless ordinary mook after defeating others. Contrast Go and Sin No More, where the villain is grateful for the hero's mercy. Inverse of Cruel to Be Kind, where the act is hurtful but will ultimately benefit the victim. If the Mercy is genuine and the Cruelty perceived, it's Don't You Dare Pity Me!. May be part of And I Must Scream or overlap with Fate Worse than Death.
- The idea of eternal suffering for those who are sent to Hell in Christianity can be seen as this, as God would most likely in that scenario let them suffer in eternity without doing anything to make it worse or better for them.
- The Bible:
- When Cain murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy, God cursed Cain by having him wander forever. When Cain, ashamed of his sin, thought his punishment would result in someone killing him, God replied that the one who killed Cain would suffer a far worse punishment, as he wanted Cain to forever live with the guilt of his crime. And God even put a mark on his forehead to let everyone know not to touch him.
- In 1 Kings Chapter 2, after David dies, Solomon becomes king over Israel. Abiathar the priest is relieved of duty and forced to resign from the priesthood for participating in Adonijah's attempt to seize the throne. Instead of immediately executing Abiathar, Solomon allows him to retire to his fields in Anathoth in recognition of his service to King David.
- Shimei is restricted to a house in Jerusalem, and is not allowed to cross the Brook Kidron under penalty of death. After three years, two of Shimei's servants run away to Gath, and Shimei goes to Gath to retrieve them. Afterward, Solomon has Shimei executed.
- Paul the apostle's ministry starts off as this, as God having him suffer for the torment he had caused (albeit in ignorance) upon God's servants when he was still Saul the Pharisee. However, over time Paul realizes the grace and mercy he has been given and even rejoices in his suffering for the Gospel's sake.
- In Greek mythology, Arachne is a skilled weaver who credits herself for her weaving abilities instead of the gods. Athena comes down and challenges Arachne to a weaving contest. Athena's weaving depicts the fates of mortals who considered themselves equal to the gods; Arachne's weaving depicts the alleged faults and shortcomings of the gods, and their alleged ill treatment of mortals. Athena is so infuriated by Arachne's weaving that she tears it to shreds. Arachne attempts to hang herself in shame, only for Athena to prevent it, transforming Arachne from a human into a wretched spider.
- And once again in Shakespeare's Cymbeline by Posthumous Leonatus to Iachimo who had just confessed to masterminding a plot which caused Posthumous to order his wife murdered.
"The power that I have on you is, to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
And deal with others better."
- In Danganronpa the Stage, Makoto Naegi stops Junko Enoshima's suicide by execution for this very reason. Since Junko is only capable of feeling pleasure from despair, be it from others or herself, the worst thing Makoto can do to her is save her life.
- The Laramie Project. Based on the real-life trial following the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, the victim's father says that while their family believes in the death penalty, they ask the jury to instead give the murderers consecutive life sentences to honor their son and show the killers the mercy that they didn't show.
"May you have a long life. And may you thank Matthew every day for it."
- In Les Misérables, as in the novel, Valjean has the chance to kill Inspector Javert and instead lets him live.
Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase!
I am the Law, and the law is not mocked!
I'll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share! It is either Valjean or Javert!
It was my right to die as well,
instead I live, but live in Hell!
- In William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the Duke does not kill Lucio as threatened but forces him to marry the whore who bore his child. "Marrying a punk, my lord," Lucio laments, "is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging."
- Depending on how you interpret it, the Big Bad Angelo suffers this as well. The Duke doesn't have him killed but forces him to wed a wife he didn't want and live after having his crimes revealed publically. His original plan was to have him marry her and then be killed, but he ultimately changes his mind.
- The ancient Greek play Medea has this as the crux of the title character's plan; after being betrayed by Jason (who she sacrificed everything for), she kills their kids and his new girlfriend, specifically not doing anything to him because she wants him to live with the pain. Her Revenge by Proxy scheme is so impressive that even Hera, Jason's divine patron (who he also pissed off with his betrayal of Medea) can add nothing to it, so she just lets Medea's punishment stand.
- Medieval Times ends with the champion of the knight's tournmant defeating the Herald of the North in what the latter intended to be a Duel to the Death. However, the King of Spain — as a way of "honoring" the Herald's valor — opted not to execute him, instead sentencing him to life imprisonment.
- In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Antonio insists on Shylock, a Jew, converting to Christianity as punishment for what he's done. For a Jew, that's... let's just say bad. In Yiddish, the word for "Jew", "yid", is used as a synonym for "person". As a former Jew, he'd be neither accepted by the Jewish community nor the Christian one. And as what's a pitiful parting shot in comparison, Antonio takes some of his money and forces him to bequeath his estate to his runaway daughter and son-in-law in his will.
- Even worse, in Shakespeare's time, this would have been considered a happy ending, in much the same way as execution was better than excommunication. Sure, he'd be shunned by his community, but to Shakespeare's Christian audience, this would mean that he would also be considered saved and get to go to heaven (and acknowledges Shylock as a person who could be saved). It's only when The Merchant of Venice began to be performed for more secular audiences that people began focusing on the downsides of the forced conversion.
- Worth noting that the contemporary parallel play, The Jew of Malta, involves the eponymous Jew dying by being boiled in a pot of oil. *shrug* Fate Worse than Death versus Cruel and Unusual Death...
- Yet another Shakespeare example: In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo murders Tybalt, a fellow aristocrat of Verona, and as Tybalt's aunt says, the punishment for this is death. But the Prince of Verona tempers the sentence to exile because Tybalt killed Mercutio (the Prince's cousin) and Romeo avenged his friend's death. When he hears this news, however, Romeo hears it as Cruel Mercy, declaring exile to be a Fate Worse than Death because it means separation from Juliet, and threatens to kill himself. Friar Lawrence proceeds to chew him out over all the Wangsting he's been doing.
- Zigzagged in The Dark Eye by the Trollzacker barbarians. Due to their religious belief, that every suffering in life means to lessen the unavoidable suffering in the afterlife, their worst punishments involve banishment and painless forms of death. If on the other side, a captured fighter is regarded as a Worthy Opponent, he will be tortured to death in days long rituals as a token of respect and mercy.
- In Exalted, it's a common habit among the Infernal Exalted. Indeed, there's a Kimbery charm that ensures this is the only kind of mercy you can show without spending willpower.
- In Planescape, the baernoloths (mysterious fiends believed to have created the yugoloth race) can heal any wound upon a creature that they have personally inflicted. Typically, they only do this to a captive victim while sadistically torturing it so that the victim won't die quickly.
- As many stories in the Ravenloft setting have proven, may the gods help you (Hah, we're kidding, there are no gods here) if you to try to cheat, con, steal from or harm the Vistani. They are notorious for inflicting dark and horrible curses on anyone who does, and victims of such often wish they were never born.
- Warhammer 40,000:
Khalos the Ravager: No. NO! Not the sarcophagus! Khorne damn you, you disloyal curs, just kill me! JUST KILL ME!
- The Dark Eldar, arguably the evilest faction in the game (an impressive feat given the setting), once rescued Craftworld Iyanden from Chaos. The Craftworld had resorted to taking souls from the Infinity Circuit to power Wraith Constructs, something Craftworld Eldar revile as necromancy. The Dark Eldar saved their Craftworld cousins just to ensure they would be forced to live with what they had done.
- Chaos Dreadnoughts, much like their Loyalist counterparts, are armored life-supporting Mini-Mecha equipped with heavy weapons that can keep a mortally-wounded Space Marine alive indefinitely. Unlike their Loyalist counterparts, they don't sleep during the centuries between battles, instead spending the time chained to a wall with their legs and weapons switched off.
- In the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG, there are a few cards that prevent your opponent's monsters from being destroyed by battle, such as Underworld Dragon Dragonecro and Serpent Suppression. However, this is not to help your opponent stand up better to you. The first one, while keeping the monster it battles alive, drains away its ATK points (and soul, in the manga), leaving only a 0 ATK point carcass instead, and even creates a token for its controller with the drained ATK as its Attack points. As for the second one, it is seen in Reptilliane decks, which focus on making the ATK of opponent monsters 0. Combined with this card, they can relentlessly keep attacking the weakened monsters, who, despite not being destroyed, are still inflicted with damage which their controller takes. Some Combos are even famous, such as using a card that prevents destruction by battle on an opponent monster and keeps attacking it with a monster with the ability to attack multiple times, such as the infamous Chimeratech Overdragon, Great Poseidon Beetle, and Number C107: Neo Galaxy-eyes Tachyon Dragon.
- The final choice of the case "Farewell, My Turnabout" of the second Ace Attorney game offers you the chance to dish this out. After a perilous, nerve-wracking few days, in which Phoenix's assistant Maya has been held captive by Shelley de Killer, a Professional Killer who's threatened to kill her unless Phoenix gets his newest client a "not guilty" verdict in just one day, Phoenix discovered all too late that his client, Matt Engarde, was actually The Sociopath who really is guilty because he hired de Killer to kill his business rival. You've been doing your damnedest to stall for time in court in the hopes that some kind of miracle might allow you to save Maya and expose Engarde, but prosecutor Franziska von Karma and Detective Gumshoe finally pull through with the evidence you need at the last second and Phoenix manages to Take a Third Option by letting de Killer know (via a radio conversation) that Engarde betrayed him by filming the murder as blackmail. de Killer, who values the trust between himself and his clients above all else, releases Maya and vows to hunt Engarde to the ends of the earth to get his revenge. Engarde's massive ego immediately flies out the window and he begins sweating bullets from the realization that there's basically nothing he can do to protect himself from a world-class assassin who will stop at nothing to kill him. You're presented with an absolutely delicious choice: convict Engarde to send him to prison, or declare him innocent so he'll be let loose and be marked for death the second he steps foot outside. If you choose the latter, he actually begs to be sent to prison on the off chance that he might be a little safer behind bars. No matter what you pick, he goes to jail, and justice is finally served.
- HFIL: Cell could reveal to Freeza's underlings that he was killed not by Goku, but Vegeta's son Trunks, but chooses not to because a) unlike Freeza he actually is trying to get out of HFIL, and b) not revealing it is much funnier cause it angers the hell out of Freeza more than revealing it ever would be.
- Minecraft Endventures: Wrecker left the Rebel Leader alive after killing his familly during his first encounter with him to "let his sorrow consume him".
- When Salem attempts to trick the God of Darkness and the God of Light into bringing a dead man back to life, the divine brothers punish her with immortality. Because she was unable to accept the death of her lover, they punish her with being unable to reunite with him in death; this results in her being completely immune to any form of death. Seeking vengeance, she raises an army against the gods; the God of Darkness wipes out the whole of humanity, asking her if she thought she could not be punished any further than she had already been. The two gods then abandon Remnant, leaving Salem to live alone on an empty world, unable to die. The gods eventually bring humanity back, but by this time, Salem has been driven mad and consumed with hatred, so she aims to wipe it out herself.
- When Maria was young, she lost her eyesight in battle against an assassin called Tock. Although Tock had been hired to kill her, she felt that she had met the terms of her contract by blinding Maria. She therefore admits that she's tempted to let Maria live, knowing that her eyesight is forever lost. Maria possessed silver eyes and had mastered the power that came with them. Tock was hired by an unknown client to kill Maria to put an end to the power of her silver eyes. However, blinding Maria achieved the same goal, which is why Tock toyed with allowing her to live.
- Parodied in 8-Bit Theater when Black Mage desperately tries to convince Sarda to employ this trope. Played straight when Sarda agrees.
Sarda: Oh, I wanted to kill you the first billion, billion and a half years, but then... it just wasn't enough anymore. Besides, killing you started to lose its novelty after the first few times. [Zaps all the Light Warriors] See? I barely cracked a smile over that one.Red Mage: I wish he'd stop making incredibly painful points with our corpses.
- Su Lüxia of Cheating Men Must Die sometimes uses this tactic to get revenge on her host characters' cheating lovers.
- Her fiancé Su Youji and his new lover Wei Na are allowed to leave their families to start a new life together, with Su Lüxia knowing full well that the two Spoiled Brats won't be able to live comfortably without their financial safety nets and that their lack of common sense and the resulting poverty will lead to a bitterly unhappy marriage.
- She gives in to Bai Ting and Liang Qun, agreeing to divorce Liang Qun so the two can marry. However, by this point Liang Qun has already seen Bai Ting's true colours and no longer wants to be with her, but Su Lüxia later manipulates events to force them to marry and see her revenge through.
- At the end of Chapter 49 of Drowtales, Minka Dutan'vir sees former Kyorl'solenurn Holy Mother Valla'drielle, who earlier in the chapter had ordered the reclaimed tower of his people dropped and many of them killed, then tried to burn Minka himself at the stake as an example only to be interrupted by a peaceful protest led to by the intended Holy Mother of the clan, Anahid. He chases and corners her and begins to choke her, but remembers and echoes Anahid's words that forgiveness is true strength and lets Valla'drielle go. Valla'drielle simply spits Fantastic Racism at him and is left to live and fade away in ignominy as the Knight Templar attitude she embodies will soon be a thing of the past.
- Done in a social way for humor in Eerie Cuties, to set up for its spin-off, Magick Chicks. After the Hellrune Coven has tried to use a gender-bending magical orb for a small plan that turned into a fiasco that left one boy stuck as a girl, they're called in front of the headmistress. Since they're also the "Queen Bees" of their school, they're told protocol would demand they be expelled. However, the headmistress believes that would let them off TOO easily. So she talked with the head of Artemis Academy to get them transferred over there as part of an exchange program, forcing them to start all over without any social benefits from their soon-to-be-former school. To a young girl who fought a lot of her high-school life to be popular, losing your status and being "socially dead" is worse than physical death.
- Done in Girl Genius. After Dr. Beetle dies, Baron Wulfenbach tells Dr. Merlot that for his part in the incident, he'll be put in charge of the city of Beetleburg...after Dr. Beetle has been given a hero's funeral with full honors, and the full details of Dr. Beetle's death, including the fact that Dr. Merlot's theatrics were the direct cause of it, have been released to a public that loved and respected Dr. Beetle.
- Thaco in Goblins destroyed Dellyn Goblinslayer's carefully-constructed legacy, leaving his elite guards dead, his prisoners escaped, and his reputation in Brassmoon ruined. When Dellyn finally faced Thaco and was defeated, he expected to be killed and earn a place in the legends of goblins as their racial nemesis until Thaco told him he was not worth the XP to kill.
Complains: "You fought the Goblinslayer? Did you kill him?"
Thaco: "No. I destroyed him."
- Samus Aran uses this as a threat in Captain SNES: The Game Masta: "I will not permit you to die."
- The Order of the Stick:
- When defeating Samantha and her father, Roy decides not to kill them, just leave them there. He argues that after disbanding the bandits, they won't be able to cause more trouble in the future. Then Belkar points out that it is this trope, leading to the trope-naming line of Your Approval Fills Me with Shame.
- Played for Laughs: After Redcloak delivers a scathing "Not So Different" Remark-themed "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the (currently trapped in a forcecage) paladin Miko, Xykon comments that he was just going to kill her, but now thinks it'd be crueler to let her live and think about what Redcloak said. Subverted in that she reacts to Redcloak's speech with a blasé, "Meh. As indignant speeches go, I've heard better." Also subverted in that it was Redcloak's plan from the beginning to let her escape so he can scry on her when she gets home, providing intelligence for the upcoming attack.
- Tarquin is dealt with in this way. Rather than slaying him in an epic showdown like Tarquin wants, Elan simply ditches his father in the middle of the desert, thereby giving their story an unsatisfying and anticlimactic end, something that the drama-obsessed, self-absorbed Tarquin finds utterly unacceptable.
- In a twisted form of charity, Brain from Sam & Fuzzy offers to let Fuzzy go after Fuzzy has inadvertently helped him find The Pit instead of killing him — but after deleting all his memories and causing him a Death of Personality. Given that Fuzzy has an extremely sore spot about his already existing Laser-Guided Amnesia and the fact that 'he' went through it once before as Eric and left Fuzzy severely traumatized, the 'offer' becomes this.
- Horribly/Hilariously Subverted in Schlock Mercenary after Kevyn captures an alien warlord who had just executed one of his squad members simply to test a theory and was about to do the same to his Love Interest before he intervened. Rather than take his revenge on the warlord ("I know he murdered our friend, but [revenge] will take you into a very dark place, Nick"), he opts to turn him in to the proper authorities... who will then kill him and eat him a little bit at a time!
Nick: Your place sounds darker, sir.Kevyn: It has the advantage of being legal.
- Chakona Space: Allen Fesler's character, Neal Foster has pulled this off a few times.
- Ink City: Trevor pulls this on Mew, with a twist of manipulation: originally, he was poised to take his revenge on another Mew who had just arrived. He waited until Mew publicly confessed before informing her he wasn't going to seek his pound of flesh; watching her live as an outcast would be far more satisfying.
- Jon Bois' Pretty Good categorizes one incident that happened during the most lopsided college football game ever (Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0). At halftime, Cumberland's already down triple-digits and their coach begs Georgia Tech's coach John Heismannote to just end the game then. Heisman agrees to shorten the game...by five minutes.
"Sometimes, a weak expression of pity is the deepest act of cruelty."
- The Nostalgia Critic: The Devil's daughter Evilina thinks that it would be crueler to leave the Critic alive to suffer the pain after reviewing Son of the Mask, despite him wanting to be killed.
- Twig: Sanguine, the last of a unit of experimental assassins that were killed by the Lambsbridge Gang, decides to let two members of the gang live after he's determined that one is infected with an incurable plague, satisfied that they've suffered enough and his dead fellows would be content with that punishment.
- In the YouTube Poop "One more Final: I need you(Tube Poop)" After Zelda's death, Link tries to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff but ends up landing on Yoshi, injuring him and eventually killing him. Luigi heads to Link with a gun but ends up refusing to kill him despite his pleadings, preferring to let him live with the misery of Zelda's death.
- One of the many, many arguments thrown about between pro-death penalty/anti-death penalty groups is the theory that spending the remainder of one's life in prison is a harsher sentence than being executed. But the pro-death-penalty people note there are people like true psychopaths (as noted a few times above) who will never see it that way; as long as they're alive, they'll never stop conspiring to win: be it by trying to break out, by trying to corrupt the prison, or by any other way they can devise. In which case, Death Is the Only Option.
- This is practically the argument of philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: someone who went into prison and served their sentence, more often than not, will find it far harder to integrate back into normal society, essentially being marked wherever they go.
- Invoked some time ago in Italy by some lifer prisoners who requested the death penalty to be restored, because they found spending the rest of their lives in prison an excessive punishment.
- When Communism fell, the Russian Federation abolished capital punishment. Anyone convicted of murder after that point would be sentenced to life in prison, and anyone who was previously on death row had their sentence commuted to twenty-five years from that point, regardless of how long they had already been in prison. Many former death row inmates, who had spent years or decades awaiting execution, killed themselves, unable to face even more prison time.
- Suicidal death row inmates are put on suicide watch. Let that sink in for a minutenote .
- Even the most merciful form of punishment, rehabilitative justice, still addresses that criminals must have their personality completely changed in order to be reintegrated back into society (assuming this is possible, given the aforementioned psychopaths). Compounding this is the everlasting guilt of reformed criminals, as well as the stigma that will follow them well beyond their sentence.
- Turkish Sultan Alp Arslan did this to the captured Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV after crushing his army in the Battle of Manzikert. His own court quickly deposed him, and later had him blinded.
- Julius Caesar specialized in this, often showing clemency to defeated rivals especially in Rome's civil wars, which, under the rules of Roman high society, left them permanently beholden to him because they owed him their lives. Cato the Younger actually killed himself to avoid this.
- This is one aspect of the Counting Coup practice among the Great Plains Indians. It sends the message, "I can lay my hands on you and there's not a damn thing you can do to stop me. You are so far below me that you are Not Worth Killing."
- In pre-modern times, exile was this. Being kicked out of your country's borders with no way home, no support network, and a strong likelihood of being unable to speak the local language or know the way to a civilization, much less a friendly one.
- Marooning, the naval practice of abandoning someone on a beach, is a variation of this. Ironically, the stereotypical desert island was a kinder punishment than a location with food and potable water: even assuming the latter scenario wasn't a Hungry Jungle, the poor mapping and navigation of the era meant discovery was virtually impossible, and the marooned sailor would Go Mad from the Isolation.
- Another variation is excommunication from a religious institution. Execution is kinder, as it still grants rites that allow the dead to go to their proper place in the afterlife. Excommunication means both being cut off from your social support network in this life and damnation in the next onenote .
- Similarly, being declared an outlaw. Make yourself annoying enough to those in power by not following the laws, and rather than seek you out and cast you into a dungeon, the King declares you literally "outside the law"; if you refuse to obey the laws, you also don't receive their protection, and anybody may rob, beat up, and even murder you without any penalty.
- A popular internet meme is the phrase "May my haters live long to see my success."
- Many, many examples from warfare. One noteworthy tactic is wounding enemy soldiers instead of killing them because wounded soldiers take up more resources. For instance, small land mines (nicknamed "toe-poppers"), used in Vietnam against American soldiers, would horribly wound but not kill, forcing the entire squad to withdraw and call for medivac, rather than mark the location of a corpse to be picked up later, and continue with the mission.
- After winning the Battle of Kleidion against Bulgaria, Byzantine Emperor Basil II, rather than kill all 15,000 of his prisoners, instead ordered that 99 out of every 100 prisoners be blinded, with the 100th left with one functioning eye to guide the others home. The idea was that having to take care of people who could no longer contribute back to their communities would cripple the enemy far more than simply killing them would.