Godless, drunken, licentious poet honoured beyond the grave

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Overshadowed by Shakespeare, damned by his reputation for drunken promiscuity and atheism, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is likely at last to overcome a 400-year ban and be admitted Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

A campaign backed by senior academics including the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, and Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, is on the verge of persuading the abbey to recognise Marlowe as a giant of English letters.

Despite establishing himself as the leading dramatist for most of the Elizabethan era with works such as Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta, Marlowe's reputation was damaged by excessive drinking, sexual adventures with men as well as women, and free-wheeling views on religion ­ a reputation that almost certainly denied him a place alongside Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

Now the abbey is preparing to rectify his omission. Yesterday it would only confirm that an appeal has been lodged, and that the decision is in the hands of the Dean, the Very Rev Dr Wesley Carr. It is understood, however, that privately the authorities have welcomed the application. The key factor, said a spokesman, would be an assessment of Marlowe's talent.

There are plenty of high-profile supporters willing to vouch for it as well as Motion and Heaney, including Sir Antony Sher, famous for his roles in Marlowe plays, and Dr Eric Anderson, Provost of Eton College, who are campaigning for a stained-glass window dedicated to the playwright. They have been joined by world experts on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama including Professor Anne Barton of Trinity College Cambridge, Professor Dame Gillian Beer from Clare Hall Cambridge, and the noted Shakespearean scholar Professor Stanley Wells.

Last week Heaney said he was astonished that Marlowe remained unrecognised in Poets' Corner. In a letter to the abbey supporting the campaign he wrote: "It's amazing that he's not already there."

Marlowe has generated new interest since Rupert Everett's cameo portrayal of him in the film Shakespeare in Love. Natural Nylon, the film production company formed by actors Jude Law and Ewan McGregor, is about to begin shooting on a film about his life.

Where previously Marlowe's private life was a liability, it is now his greatest asset, spawning an array of theories about his life and death, aged 29, after he was stabbed through the eye in a south London tavern. Not only is he supposed by some to have been the true author of Shakespeare's works but he also dabbled in espionage and spoke openly of his homosexual liaisons.

The campaign for his recognition has been led by Dr Colin Niven, president of the Marlowe Society and headmaster of Alleyn's School, south London, which is named after Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the first Dr Faustus. "It's absurd that he is not [in Poets' Corner] already," he said. "The reason is undoubtedly his alleged atheism. In fact I think he would be better described as a free thinker: someone prepared to have thoughts of his own."

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