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Please Shoot the Messenger

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"Wilt thou know
The effect of what I wrote?...
That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd."
Hamlet, Hamlet

The plucky, eager young messenger has been ordered to deliver a message to the queen. The messenger, desperately wanting to please his superiors, runs along as fast as he can and hands over the envelope before the wax has even cooled. He watches, nervously, as the queen reads it and... wait, why is she pointing a gun at him?

What do you mean, the message told her to?!

This trope is when a character sends another — usually an Unwitting Pawn — to deliver a message containing the single instruction to harm the person delivering the message. While the instructions are usually fatal, that is not a requirement for the trope. This method of disposing of the Unwitting Pawn is usually a Kick the Dog moment for the person sending the message.

Sometimes the message refers to the messenger, but not by name. This message often gets handed to a different messenger for delivery. Alternately, the messenger or another person intercepts and modifies the message.

Not to be confused with Shoot the Messenger, Spare a Messenger or Don't Shoot the Message. It's related, however, to Shoot the Dangerous Minion. Can be combined with the related Uriah Gambit, when the message tells the recipient to send the messenger on a deadly errand. If you're playing a video game and your Player Character gets hit with this, you've just encountered one variety of Treacherous Quest Giver.

Spoilers ahoy!


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    Comic Books 
  • Played for Laughs in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. Irritated that his son John D. Rockerduck is such a massively Spoiled Brat, Howard Rockerduck remarks that he should be beaten with a horsewhip. After Scrooge gives up his claim to the copper mine in order to take the money he's already earned back home to help his family, John starts berating his father for "mingling with peasants", showing absolutely No Sympathy for Scrooge's situation. The following panel shows John visiting a store, waving a banknote around:
    Storekeeper: Your father sent you over here to buy him a horsewhip?
    John: Yes, and you'd better snap to it, lackey! He's a rich man!
  • One of the Mouse Guard books had a story where this happened to one of the protagonists, as a ruse by the king of his own land in order to get the guy's wife while at the same time ending a war that the two kings had been engaged in. The dude actually lives through the attack and is able to return, and his wife ends up killing the king.
  • This is how John Looney betrays Michael O'Sullivan in Road to Perdition. The message in question read "Kill O'Sullivan, and all sins are forgiven." Michael being Michael, however, the people that he sends this message to don't succeed in offing him. John Looney's son Connor, on the other hand, is a lot more successful in his part of the betrayal, though Connor ended up killing the wrong kid (he had intended to kill Michael Jr., who had witnessed a hit by Michael and Connor, and did not trust Michael's words that his son was a man of honor).
  • In the Tintin comic Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin takes two patients to a mental hospital, and gives the doctor a letter which is supposed to explain their condition. Little does he know that letter was switched* for one that describes Tintin himself as a dangerous lunatic, and instructs the doctor to lock him up.
    • A milder example in The Blue Lotus: Thompson & Thomson are reluctantly sent to arrest Tinin in Manchuria, bearing a warrant in Chinese that neither of them can read. When they present the warrant to the local police superintendent, the man reads it, then roars with laughter and has the Thompsons thrown out of the station, and tells Tintin he is free to go. Outside, Tintin's friend Chang explains that he switched the warrant with a paper he wrote himself, reading, "In case you haven't noticed, we are lunatics and this proves it."

    Comic Strips 
  • One Beetle Bailey strip had Sarge, tired of Beetle's antics, tell Beetle to deliver a letter to General Halftrack. Lt. Fuzz intercepted Beetle, declaring that if anyone was to deliver a message to the general, it should be him. The message? "Throw this idiot in the brig!"

    Fairy Tales 

    Fan Works 
  • The Weirwood Queen: After Varys walks in on Jaime post-patricide, he and Illyrio ship him off to Meereen, ostensibly to serve Young Griff. However, the letter he takes with him declares that he has been remanded to the justice of House Targaryen.
  • With This Ring: Paul combines getting revenge for a minor prank, with giving Artemis a Christmas present, by sending her to knock on a stranger's door and present a package he's given her, then wait for a response. The package contains letters and photographs about Artemis' family.
    Woman: Didn't... Don't you know what's in here?
    Artemis: No, because someone decided it would be more fun this way.
    Woman: Then he's either very kind or very mean.
    Artemis: Look, who are you?
    Woman: My name is Cynthia Crock, dear, and according to this I'm your grandmother.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Fourth Protocol is about a Soviet plot to detonate a nuclear device on British soil and Make It Look Like an Accident. As such an act violates a secret protocol between the nuclear powers, various people get bumped off because They Know Too Much. The KGB agent assigned to the task is given 'final instructions' by his briefing officer before going on the mission. The agent looks surprised after reading them, gives his briefing officer a Meaningful Look, then breaks his neck. Later a female military scientist is sent to assemble the bomb that the agent will detonate. She delivers a message which Brosnan decodes using a one-time pad, then he burns the message claiming that it just confirms her instructions re setting off the bomb. She ends up sleeping with him, and the morning after rolls over in bed and sees the imprint on the notepad: KILL HER. The agent immediately shoves a pillow against her chest and fires his gun through it, killing her as she's about to blurt out that the bomb's timer has been set to kill him the moment he activates it.
  • In Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, Maria tries to get rid of Jesse by giving him an envelope she says contains a prescription for Hank, and sending him to Prescott to get it filled. However, the envelope actually contains a note telling the druggist the bearer is the outlaw Jesse James, and telling to summon the authorities.
  • In Kangaroo Jack: The main character is the fuck-up stepson to a mafia boss, who sends him and his friend to Australia to deliver the contract for a mob hit to his associates. It turns out that they're delivering the payment for their murder, rather than the contract. The kangaroo ends up inadvertently saving their life by running off with the money inside the red jacket.
  • The opening of Return of the Jedi doesn't quite match this to the letter, but the idea is the same: R2-D2 and C-3PO are sent to Jabba's palace with a message that they are being traded to Jabba, much to the surprise of C-3PO (but not R2). This is subverted when it turns out to be all part of their plan to rescue Han.
  • Road to Perdition combines this with a Uriah Gambit. When Sullivan goes out on his debt collecting rounds for Mr. Rooney, he is given a special note from him actually from Rooney's son for the first debtor he visits - an offer to forgive the debt if the debtor kills Sullivan. As Sullivan is The Dreaded the debtor breaks out in a cold sweat, tipping off Sullivan on what's about to happen.
  • The Transporter makes a living delivering packages no-questions-asked, so after he's done an assignment for them, the villains give him a suitcase to be delivered somewhere else. Fortunately he stops for a soda so the bomb explodes while he's out of the car.

  • Address Unknown: While Max's letters to Martin don't explicitly state anything threatening, he has been weaponizing Spy Speak, penning his letters in such an odd way that they look like coded messages. He does this intentionally in order to get Martin accused of espionage by the Nazi regime.
  • In Blood Games by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (part of her Saint-Germain series), Justus sends his slave Monostades who has been helping him with a note instructing the recipient to seize the slave, geld him, cut out his tongue, and send him to hard labor. He learns to write (and testify) in the labor gang.
  • In The Destroyer series, if it ever becomes necessary to disband CURE via Killed to Uphold the Masquerade, Smith will commit suicide after sending Remo to deliver such a message to Chiun.
  • The Executioner. In "Panic in Philly", Mack Bolan pulls a nasty version of this when he kills a Black Ace (an elite Professional Killer, answerable only to The Mafia Commission), dresses the body in his trademark black body suit, and gives it to the idiot son of a Mafia boss to take to New York. When the Don finds out, he has a Villainous Breakdown at the thought of what will happen to his son for this cock-up.
  • Five Wise Words: Ram Singh is falsely accused before the rajah, but is quite popular, so the rajah decides to execute him stealthily, by giving him a coded message to deliver that will signal the recipient to kill him. However, by following the principles that his guru taught him, Ram Singh accidentally avoids his death, and his accuser inadvertently delivers the message instead.
  • A variation in the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Blood Pact. Junior Commissar Ludd is given such a letter by his superior officer, with the caveat that he's only to deliver it (and thus be shot) if he feels he needs help earning the respect of the Ghosts, thereby failing in his role as morale officer.
  • In Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), he suggests improving the track-and-field Olympic events in various ways, one of which is to give each runner a sealed envelope the winner is supposed to deliver. The envelopes contain a kill order for the winner. Everyone knows this but the runners.
  • I, Claudius has a downplayed version which doubles up as a Snipe Hunt: Caligula punishes someone who's annoyed him by sending him with a letter to the King of Morocco. The letter says, "Kindly send bearer back to Rome."
    • Was earlier played straight by Sejanus; he'd been given a letter from Tiberius to deliver to the Senate. Tiberius led Sejanus to believe it was a promotion, but in fact it accused him of numerous crimes and requested that the Senate put him to death.
  • Dr. Bledsoe pulls a non-fatal version on the Narrator in Invisible Man with a supposed letter of recommendation that actually says something along the lines of "Do not hire this man under any circumstances."
  • Marcus Didius Falco: Lampshaded in In The Iron Hand of Mars. Falco is sent to deliver a message to a military camp in Germania. As Falco is a former soldier from a disgraced Legion they aren't very nice to him, maliciously joking that the message might read, "Please kill the messenger." As it happens the emperor's son (who gave him the assignment) has taken an interest in Falco's Love Interest, so he doesn't find that particularly funny.
  • Vagabonds of Gor: Tarl risks life and limb to deliver a message from the regent in Ar to the commander of Ar's Station, but when he gets there, he learns that the message is, "This man is a spy. Kill him." The message wasn't from the regent but from another traitorous faction within Ar's government.
    • A variant occurs in Nomads of Gor. Tarl is the only one who can speak with Elizabeth Cardwell, as she is newly arrived on Gor and can only speak English. She is also carrying a message bearing orders to find and kill the man who can speak with her. Kamchak treats this as a Secret Test of Character, pretends to be illiterate, and tells Tarl to read the message for him.
  • In The Wheel of Time series:
    • Mat carries one of these at one point. Being less than completely honorable, he decides to read it before he delivers it.
    • Bayle Domon, too. He is smart enough to read it before delivering it, and makes the entirely sensible decision to flee far, far away.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In The A-Team episode "Recipe for Heavy Bread", a former North Vietnamese soldier who helped the A-Team out was smuggled into the U.S. along with a note along these lines for the smuggler's accomplice. The (failed) murder attempt kick-starts the episode's plot.
  • Played With in an episode of Criminal Minds. A high-ranking law enforcement officer is secretly running a drug empire and learns of an unrelated serial killer operating in his territory. He decides to funnel victims to the serial killer rather than dirty his own hands. When one of his operatives suspects a mole, he has them "meet a contact" near the serial killer's home. The serial killer doesn't seem to be aware of the relationship, but he's more than happy to kill the strangers that keep winding up on his property.
  • In the flash-sideways reality of Lost, Jin and Sun travel to the United States to deliver a large sum of cash to a business associate of Sun's father. The associate, Keamy, reveals that the money is Keamy's fee for killing Jin.
  • In one episode of NUMB3RS, a gang leader uses his chess lessons with a teenage boy, Bishop, to pass coded messages to his gang. As the police start closing in on the scheme, the gang leader becomes concerned that Bishop is too much of a loose end, and his next "chess lesson" is an order to kill Bishop. Fortunately, the FBI team is able to decode the message in time to intervene.
  • After losing a decisive battle against Julius Caesar in Rome, Pompey the Great seeks sanctuary in Egypt, only to be murdered by a Roman mercenary employed by the Egyptian court. The Egyptians later present Pompey's head to Caesar (expecting Caesar to be thankful to them for killing his enemy), but Caesar is furious that a Roman Consul, even a former friend turned enemy, was butchered in such a fashion. Afraid of his wrath, the Egyptians send the mercenary to deliver a message to Caesar saying, "The man bearing this message is the murderer of Pompey Magnus". As you can probably guess, things don't end well for the unfortunate mercenary.
  • In "The Luck Child", an episode of The Storyteller, an evil king finds a young man who's been prophesied to be king after him. He offers him a position at court and sends him to the castle with a letter instructing the Queen to have the boy cut into a thousand pieces. The letter doesn't make it into the Queen's hands, thanks to the intervention of a helpful forger who replaces it with instructions to have the bearer marry the princess instead.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Older Than Dirt: the Sumerian-language *Sargon legend*, probably dating to the Old Babylonian period (around 1800-1600 BCE), describes the rise to power of the near-legendary 23rd century king Sargon of Akkad. Ur-Zababa, king of Kish, has a dream in which his throne is usurped by his cupbearer, Sargon. First, Ur-Zababa tells his chief smith to throw the man who will bring him a set of bronze hand mirrors for repairs into the furnace, and sends Sargon: but Sargon, through the intervention of his patron goddess Inanna, does not enter the smithy but only passes the mirrors to the smith outside the door. Next, Ur-Zababa sends the illiterate Sargon with a missive to Lugal-zage-si, king of Uruk, with the message asking him to murder Sargon. Here, the tablet is broken, and we do not know how Inanna protected Sargon from this threat, but one way or another Sargon took the place of Lugal-zage-si and forged the first empire in human history.
  • Iobates was the King of Lycia. His son-in-law Proetus, convinced that his guest Bellerophon had tried to rape his wife/Iobates' daughter (in fact, Bellerophon had refused her advances), was determined to kill the hero, but was bound by xenia not to. So he sent Bellerophon to Iobates with a note that said "Kill the bearer of this message." But before Bellerophon could hand the message to Iobates, he had feasted at the Lycian court and slept under the King's roof—xenia again! So Bellerophon was sent to destroy the horrible monster Chimera—and all manner of additional challenges, forming the legend of Bellerophon.
  • The Bible: In the Second Book of Samuel King David has Uriah the Hittite carry a letter to Joab, his commanding officer:
  • Gesta Danorum: After the usurper Fengi has murdered his brother and married the latter's wife, he senses that his nephew Amleth is dangerous, but does not dare to kill him himself because he fears the reaction of his wife (Amleth's mother) and her family. He contrives to send Amleth to Britain with two courtiers carrying a message (carved into a piece of wood) instructing the King of Britain to put Amleth to death. While his companions are sleeping, Amleth reads the message and alters it so that it orders the death of the courtiers and moreover demands the king to give Amleth his daughter in marriage. The king complies on both counts.
  • An Urban Legend from the late days of WWII Berlin, when food was getting scarce, has it that a young boy was paid to deliver an envelope to a butcher shop, after being told strictly not to open it himself. The boy got curious and suspicious, and opened it anyway. It contained a note with only one sentence: "Here is the veal."

    Tabletop Games 
  • Fantasy Games Unlimited's Flashing Blades supplement An Ambassador's Tales. In the adventure "Diplomatic Immunity", a treacherous British nobleman sends the French adventurers to deliver a coded message to Lord Pepperbox. The message is a line from Shakespeare that talks about killing Frenchman, which Lord Pepperbox will correctly interpret as a death warrant for the PCs.

  • Mortimer pulls this on hired assassin Lightborn in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, sending him to kill the deposed King Edward with a note to Edward's jailers to kill Lightborn himself once the deed is done.
  • Hamlet: The courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern travel to England with Hamlet to deliver a letter by King Claudius which orders Hamlet's execution (of which the two are probably unaware). To their misfortune, Hamlet secretly reads the letter and alters the message so that it orders the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. They deliver the letter, and are executed.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead parodies this. They read the letter after it's been tampered with, but since this play has No Fourth Wall, they have to acknowledge that they can't do a thing about the plot.
  • A more comedic, non-lethal variant happens in Victor Hugo's plays Ruy Blas, where the queen gets rid of her Yandere Abhorrent Admirer by asking him to deliver a letter to someone from her family. Said letter turns out to say "Keep this old fool busy as long as possible".

    Urban Legends 
  • Played with in a popular urban legend. A young woman agrees to deliver a message for a blind stranger, but, finding the circumstances suspicious, takes the note to the police instead. They find a horrific setting selling human flesh. The note reads "This is the last one I am sending you today."

    Video Games 
  • Dishonored has a variation: Before the Boyle party mission your compatriot Lord Pendleton asks you to deliver a letter to one of the guests. Said letter designates you as Pendleton's stand-in for a Duel to the Death. Naturally you don't find this out until after the other man has read the letter. Unless you're a terrible shot, you'll win, but it's a hassle if you're doing a no-kill playthrough. You can just walk away after the letter's been delivered, though...or use a sleep dart, which counts as a victory.
  • In Drakensang II in order to win the trust of Captain Soorman you must deliver such a letter to one of his men.
  • The shopkeeper in text adventure Gnome Ranger gives you a letter to send to his family member down the road, in exchange for an item from his shop. Of course, said family member is a witch that creates statues from visitors.
  • Can happen to you in Fallout 2: if you don't agree with Moore's views (even though he's right) about Vault City being a bunch of selfish assholes or pressure him to give you more payment for delivering his briefcase to Bishop, he will put a notice into the briefcase that prompts Bishop to set his thugs after you. In fact, there's no way to tell whether the briefcase carries the notice or not since the game notes it's sealed up real good so that you can't open it.
  • In Hitman: Blood Money, the agency has some sort of code that instructs their agents to kill postmen who bring them a letter marked with it.
  • Downplayed in Wizard101: After giving you a menial task for failure, Professor Cyrus Drake sends you with a letter to the headmaster. The headmaster reads it and exclaims that he will not expel you, no matter what Cyrus thinks of you.
  • A subversion in World of Warcraft : Wrath of The Lich King. You are instructed (by an Ebon Blade officer) to read the message aloud in front of a Vrykul warlord. The message itself is an order to submit and ceasing allegiance to the Lich King with surrender or die threat attached. At the end of the message, it is said that the messenger will also be the deliverer of said threat should he refused to submit (which he definitely won't).


    Web Original 
  • In this Not Always Healthy story, a woman is suspicious when her new doctor sends her to see a specialist with a sealed letter, so she steams it open. The letter says there's nothing wrong with her, but the specialist can probably bilk her for a lot of money.

    Western Animation 
  • Looney Tunes: In "Duck! Rabbit! Duck!", Bugs Bunny tricks Elmer Fudd into thinking he needed a special license to shoot a "fricasseeing rabbit." Daffy Duck writes up the license but Bugs tricks Daffy into making it a "fricasseeing duck" license.
    Daffy: How do you spell fricasseeing?
    Bugs: F-r-i-c-a-s-s-e-e-i-n-g-d-u-c-k.
  • In the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon "Not So Quiet," Pegleg Pete, a general, does this to Oswald, a low-ranking soldier.
  • Rick and Morty once met a Floop-Floopian who asked them, via note, to kill him. Rick explains that Floop-floopians, if killed by a great warrior, achieve an "eternal orgasmic afterlife".
  • In The Simpsons, Bart campaigns for class president. Mrs. Krabbappel gives Bart a note that she wants brought to Principal Skinner. The note reads "Keep Bart distracted for a few minutes".

    Real Life 
  • Caliph Al-Akim is said to have toyed with this by dropping random missives for people to find and deliver, containing either an order to kill the bearer or an order to give them gold if delivered unopened.
  • A nonlethal variant happened to Alfred Hitchcock. When he was a little boy, his father gave him a letter and sent him to a police station. The letter contained a request to throw little Alfred into a cell for a night. Since then, Hitchcock, generally a brave man, feared police.
  • According to Thucydides, the Spartan general Pausanias conspired with the Persian king communicating via letters which habitually included instructions to kill the messenger. Eventually one of them opened the letter and showed it to the Ephors.
  • Played with by the infamously cruel Emperor Caligula, who once ordered a wealthy Roman to carry a letter to Ptolemy, king of Mauretania. The letter asked him to "Do neither good nor ill to the man I have sent."
  • A traditional part of a Scottish Snipe Hunt (called a Gowk Hunt — "gowk" being Scots for a cuckoo and April Fools' Day being known as Gowk Day in Scots). The unfortunate asking for tartan paint or whatever will hand over a letter that explains the situation. All the letter says is "Dinnae laugh, dinnae smile. Hunt the gowk another mile", and so they'll be told that there's none in stock here, but...