Shakespeare did it. So did Joan of Arc, George Sand, Claire Booth Luce and the notorious Sarah Bernhardt.

But Zorro was a fraud! Pretty technique - but strictly for show.

In this country fencing has never quite shed its image as a sport of the upper classes. Now that the wait for a tennis court and partner borders on the impossible, fencing may be the newest old sport to help keep American beautiful.

Anyone can pick up the foil, says fencing coach Camille Lownds. The elegant maneuvers not only tone and condition the body but develop remarkable speed, agility and sense of balance.

It worked for her. She took up fencing about 20 years ago, as an awkward, skinny and painfully shy 14-year-old, because she wanted to stand out from the crowd. "It gave me a tremendous sense of confidence," she recalls. "The moment I picked up the foil, I became a beautiful princess in a long, flowing, white chiffon gown."

So convinced is Lownds that fencing is the answer to nearly of all America's woes that she's written a paean to the age-old art - "Foil Around and Stay Fit" (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 192 pp.), an introduction to basic fencing principles and related warm-up exercises.

"I want to get the elitist attitude about fencing out of the general public's mind," says Lownds. "Fencing is needed because people are greedy and uptight. It's ideal to channel hostilities and aggression in a beautiful and artistic way."

Duke Angeson, a maintenance/remodeling supervisor, preferred Three Musketeers to cowboys-and-indians as a child, using garbage can lids and sticks. Now he's hooked on the real thing.

"Fencing is the only sport for which you can to to the Olympics no matter how old you are," says Angeson. With this goal in mind, he runs an hour each morning and works out two hours every evening - either alone or at one of the two fencing clubs he belongs to. With only two years of fencing under his belt, Angeson has modified some habits to help get back in shape. "I stopped smoking cigarettes, eat more salads and vegetables, and cut down on sweets."

"I like the thrill of a sword fight," says Tom Battista, a cutter operator for McGraw Hill. "The flashing steel and old-time movie-style dueling is totally enjoyable."

Ask any fencer and you will quickly be told that the sport is like chess, requiring total mind and body concentration in an intellectual bout that demands sharpened senses and good observation to size up your oppononent's strengths and weaknesses and outwit him. Age and size have little to do with proficiency.

A good fencer gives his less-experienced opponent a lesson by forcing him to deal with an unfamiliar strategy, says Werner. Meudt, president of the D.C. Amateur Fencers League of America. As in chess, the combinations of parries, ripostes and lunges and endless.

Historically, fencing bouts can be traced back some 3,000 years, for drawings on the wall of an Egyptian temple built for Ramses Ill about 1200 B.C. show contestants wearing protective gear similar to the present-day mask, jacket and gloves. Many centuries later sword play developed when the use of gunpowder changed combat and caused knights to discard their heavy armor.

Modern fencing originated in Italy during the Renaissance. Proper schooling in the art of arms was no less important to a gentleman's education than the arts and letters. Ladies studied fencing to improve their posture, circulation and graceful bearing. The Italian refinements in fencing quickly spread throughout Europe.Fencing masters in France were considered aristocrats, and some were beheaded during the Revolution of 1789.

Locally, the Washington Fencers Club was formed in 1896 with Russia's dashing Count Arthur Cassini as president. Most of the members were diplomats, military brass, and professionals - it was a gentlemen's sport. Today there are half a dozen salles d'armes and an estimated 400 sword-brandishers in the area.

Fencing is still compulsory in many European schools. The United States is the only country that still classifies fencing as an amateur sport - which means that it gets no subsidies. For those who compete, especially with the Olympics in mind, this can be quite costly.

Camille Lownds devotes much of her energy to lobbying organizations like the President's Council on Physical Fitness for fencing programs in public schools. Currently she teaches at a private school in New York and will soon coach members of the American Ballet Theater. Lownds believes that it could even help mentally and physically handicapped persons develop better coordination and mental agility.

But how can you popularize a sport without making it trendy? The trick is to prevent people from donning stylish fencing garb the way running suits are worn now. Not exactly what the early sword-wielders had in mind for an art designed to resolve an attack on one' honor.

"There's no room for fraud in fencing," Lownds says adamantly. "You can't sit around a salle and not work."