My advice is to read the plays and the poetry. And *then* the biography and the criticism, because I think they're almost universally wrong.
The fact we *know* about Kit can be written on a 3x5 card, literally.
His name was Christofer Marley: so he was baptized, and so he signed himself. One signature survives, a witness on another man's will. His intimates called him Kit.
He was the eldest son of a Canterbury cobbler, who was probably a violent man, and he had a fistful of sisters and one small brother, Tom. He attended King's School in Canterbury on a scholarship. (Grammar school was free to all English boys--the great Gift of Great Harry. Secondary education was a gentleman's game, and it cost.)
From King's School he went to Cambridge. Also as a scholarship student. At first, his expenditures there were parsimonious, within the limits of his pauper's portion.
Later, he spent extravagantly.
His tenure at university was oft-interrupted, and he only recieved a degree because the privy council wrote a letter to the university explaining that his absences had been in service to the crown.
These items have lead many to conjecture that he was, beginning in university, an agent of Francis Walsingham's. Especially as he was a friend of Thomas Watson, who is also though to have been a spy for the queen's spymaster. But that's conjecture. We have no proof.
He wrote the translation of Ovid and probably his first play, a treatment of Queen Dido, in university.
He went to London.
He travelled to the Netherlands, with which England was at war, and was arrested for counterfeiting, a capital crime.
He went free.
He was arrested--with Tom Watson--for duelling, and the murder of William Bradley in Hog Lane. He went a free man again.
In London, by 1691, at the age of 27, he was the acknowleged master of the theatre. About his personal life we know nothing, except he was Thomas Kyd's roomate, and Thomas Watson's friend, and Thomas Walsingham (the nephew of the above Sir Francis) was his patron--and, many suspect, lover. And some--notably Anthony Burgess--suspect, architect of his murder.
In London, he created the Renaissance drama as we know it from Shakespeare's pen. The blank verse line. "Marlowe's mighty line," as Ben Jonson called it. It was Shakespeare who brought the brilliance and complexity of character forward--Kit, unlike Will, does not *like* men (although he will write women sympathetically, even women whom history treats ill) and invariably, his male characters get what they deserve.
Which is an awful, bloody, earned death.
He may have been the intimate of Sir Walter Ralegh, and of Northumberland, and an initiate of the School of Night, their arcane mystery society.
In my estimation, he was--at the age of 29--a better poet than Shakespeare. But Shakespeare was humane. And Kit was not.
In 1593, Tom Kyd was arrested and tortured because of some allegedly atheistic papers in his quarters. Under torture, he attested they belonged to Marlowe.
Kyd called Marlowe "intemperate & of a cruel heart," but another--Marston, I think--called him "Kind Kit." I have a sense of a mercurial man, elusive, febrile.
In 1593, in May, Richard Baines--who was, by the way, arrested with Kit in the Netherlands for counterfeiting--claimed that Marlowe was an apostate, a counterfeiter, a sodomite, and so forth. Some fragments of his text eerily echo the allegations attributed to Kyd. I wonder, me, if they were...
Marley, accused for the third time of a hanging offense--
Though under a requirement to report every day to officials.
On 30 May 1593, Christofer Marley travelled from London to Deptford. By boat or by hired horse, we do not know. In Deptford, he met with Ingram Frazier, an employee of Thomas Walsingham; Robin or Robert Poley, a moneylender and intelligencer (spy) with connections to the theatrical community; and Nicholas Skeres, at the house of one Eleanor Bull.
They spent the day in conversation, walking together, talking together.
They took their dinner in a private room.
When the dinner was ended, Christofer Marley was dead on a bed beside the wall, with Ingram Frazier's dagger embedded in his brain an inch above the orbit of his eye, and Elizabeth pardoned his killer, allowing self-defense.
In the few years after, the popular story was put out that Marlowe was killed in a brawl over a lad or lass of easy virtue. The Coroner was told he attacked Frazier over the "reckoning." The bill, in other words.
Later, his works were suppressed, some of them burned. (His Ovid, notably)
Marlowe's thought to have been vocally and notably homosexual. We have no proof. But it seems to me that "Hero & Leander" is a stunningly homoerotic poem. Of what he wrote in his 29 years and a fragment, seven plays, one long poem, one short lyric poem, two eulogies, and a translation of Ovid survive. He was facile in English and Latin and Greek. he was four years younger than I am when he died.
I am, at 33, barely finding my voice.
It's anybody's guess if this portrait is actually him, but it's the right year (he would have been 21) and it was turned to the wall and plastered over.
Quite a statement, huh?
What happened in that room? Well. Here's what Shakespeare has to say, in As You Like It, Act III, scene iii:
Touchstone: When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.
Audrey: I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
Touchstone: No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.
I, personally, like to think that's the testament of a friend.
That said, Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning does a marvellous job of separating fact from fancy. Riggs' The World of Christopher Marlowe is spoda be good too.
But I haven't read it yet.