Aristotle spoke of a certain number of arts, but it’s not like he invented the “muses.” To him, theatre had two main “genres”, comedy and tragedy. There were similar arts, such as “epics”, which also told stories.
To summarize, a tragedy had a great man falling from a great height, and a sad ending, and a comedy had someone come from nowhere and achieve a happy ending. The other “rules” of genres were merely conventions or expectations. (When I’ve used the words “rules” in the past, I usually meant conventions.)
The DK book of Shakespeare also includes histories, romances, and “problem comedies”. Shakespeare himself spoke of Tragicomedies and other hybrids, but they were basically three genres of history, tragedy, and comedy.
Shakespeare’s histories could be seen as mere propaganda plays. In a way, Merry Wives of Windsor might be seen as factual as Richard III. Even Hamlet and Macbeth were based on real people, at least the names of real people, but they didn’t pretend to be histories.
So, why call a play a history? Calling a play a history frees it from genre conventions, or “rules”. The audience doesn’t expect a sad or happy ending, the fall of a great one or the rise of a humble one, instead they expect to be told a story based on known events. As strange as this may sound, this gives the storyteller a lot of freedom.
I’m not talking about “dramatic license” here. History’s stories are incomplete. By the time Shakespeare wrote Richard III, the Plantagenet side of the story had nearly disappeared. Richard’s true motives, and any evidence which could acquit him, were hardly available to a London based playwright. 100 years of Tudor rule had suppressed the Plantagenet story.
The Tudor story, however, did give an interesting account of Richard, as a brave if scheming man. Yet, despite that story covering over 100 pages in the chronicles, much was missing.
Shakespeare altered the chronicles somewhat. Not only did he add ghosts, curses, and mystic dreams, but the playwright put people in different locations and changed causes of death. But, his most interesting speeches, what Richard said in his soliloquys or Lady Anne and Queen Margaret said in their condemnations, were the kinds of things that wouldn’t have been recorded even if they were real.
In Shakespeare’s time, a genre was, with the title, part of the marketing of a play. “A Midsommer Nights Dream” sounds very different from “The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”
Theatrical genres have often been named after that type of writing went out of fashion “Elizabethan Drama”, “Theatre of the Absurd”, “French Romanticism”, “Commedia Dell’Arte”, “the Well-made play.”
Some see film and music genres as marketing gimmicks, and screenwriters especially don’t want to be confined into genres.
Let’s consider music genres for a minute. Classical, Hip Hop, Country Western, Heavy Metal, Gospel and accapella boy bands all have their own “sound” to them. One might be a judge of a good reggae song without any knowledge of Gregorian chants.
While there’s a genre called “dance”, people also dance to Waltz, to Rock, and do line dancing and square dancing and dance to many other kinds of music made for dancing. There aren’t many people who dance to every kind of dance music.
So, it’s unrealistic to expect a record label, a producer, an agent, or a critic to deal with every music genre.
With certain genres, you expect to hear lyrics. Some are poetic and repeat emotions, others tell complete stories, and with others, the lyrics are less important.
Film genre can be the same. Some genres are vague, such as “family” film. Comedy is as vague as “dance” music, different people find different things funny.
Rather than limiting genre to a set of rules, we look at genre in terms of audience, uses, or conventions. Your film doesn’t have to be a high-noon western or samurai code or a gangster noir. But, let me know, in a few short words, who I can take to see it, and what mood we’d be in when we go.
Family film. Tear jerker. Screwball comedy. Even the clunky sounding as “Special effects crowd-scene war film” tells me something.
Is this the kind of film I’d like to see? When and with whom?
It’s difficult to place genre. We called Dara Says a “Romantic Comedy” when as theatre it might simple be “comedy” and The United States and Ukraine an “Experimental documentary.” Perhaps you’d describe them differently, however, Dara Says is not a documentary, and The United States and Ukraine is not a comedy.
Genre doesn’t describe an entire work, but it is a starting point.