Deptford secretsWhen it comes to a literary posterity, premature death can be a good career move (Chatterton, Keats, Georg Büchner, Wilfred Owen), but not always. If your untimely demise is also violent and mysterious, you will be remembered long after your contemporaries are forgotten, but more for your dramatic end than for your dramatic genius. And if your early decease coincides with one of the great periods of English literary creativity, you will be argued about for centuries, but as much for what you might have written as for what you actually composed.Such is the case with Christopher Marlowe. The brouhaha over his death, which surfaced again last week, has long impeded a clear view of his extraordinary gifts. The author of ‘Come live with me and be by love’, ‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?’ and ‘What is beauty saith my sufferings, then?’ deserves to be remembered for more than just his turbulent career, as a writer, not as a high-profile theatrical personality. But that, alas, seems to be his fate.Marlowe is a fascinating and strangely modern figure, whose life, as Tom Stoppard implied in his witty Shakespeare in Love cameo, is pure Hollywood. Playwright, ‘free-thinker’, homosexual and government agent, he was also, according to Swinburne, the father of English tragedy and the ‘creator of English blank verse’.Marlowe’s plays – Edward II, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine – are gorgeous, high octane and spectacular. They glitter with memorable speeches of breath-catching beauty. They are almost impossible to stage successfully. And they seem to anticipate Shakespeare.This is where the trouble starts. Although the commonsense view of Marlowe’s death, backed up by good scholarship, is that he died after a fight in a tavern, there has always been a vociferous minority who contend that there’s another side to his story.Briefly, the Marlovians claim that, worldly, well-connected and controversial as he was, Marlowe faked his death to avoid charges of heresy, fled to France, continued to write plays and arranged to have them published in England under the name of a country bumpkin from Stratford, William Shakespeare.Preposterous? You might think so. Some members of the Marlowe Society would beg to disagree. Although a mass of scholarly research from Leslie Hotson to William Urry to Charles Nicholl (in The Reckoning) has established quite clearly that he was killed, and seen to be killed, in Deptford by one Ingram Frizer on 30 May 1593, there are diehard conspiracy theorists who maintain the opposite.The reason is quite simple. A dead Marlowe could not possibly write Shakespeare. A secretly living one could. It’s at this point that ‘Marlowe scholarship’ seamlessly merges, and starts to compete, with the equally contentious claim that Shakespeare was actually written by Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, even the Virgin Queen herself.In other words, poor old Kit Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury and star graduate of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (where you can still see his room), gets caught up in some of the dottiest literary theories in the known world. That, at least, is how it stood until last year.When it was announced in 2001 that Marlowe was finally to get a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, a number of prominent literary figures, from Seamus Heaney to Professor Andrew Motion, heaved a sigh of relief. At last Marlowe was getting his due. The old hellraiser could be taken into the bosom of the literary establishment, alongside his contemporaries, Shakespeare, Jonson and Spenser.Why, exactly, it should now matter that Marlowe should get this dubious recognition beats me (Poets’ Corner contains memorials to some very weird poetical birds), but from afar it looked as though the nuttier Marlovians were letting their man go straight for a change.Fat chance. When the stained-glass lozenge in the north-east window of the south transept was unveiled last week, it turned out to contain a gratuitous and provocative detail designed to reignite the Marlowe-Shakespeare debate. Beneath the poets’s name are his dates – 1564-?1593.The ‘?’ says that perhaps he did not die. Perhaps he did escape to France. Perhaps he did write Shakespeare. Blah blah blah. It’s a shame that a great writer’s achievements should be trivialised by such a publicity stunt. The author of some groundbreaking plays, Hero and Leander and ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his love’ deserves better than this and will be remembered long after the Christopher Marlowe Society is mercifully defunct.