It sounds rather simple-minded, yes, but they had a great debate recently in cahoots with American University on whether Shakespeare or the earl of Oxford wrote the great poetry.

The usual argument is that the earl was sophisticated, worldly, and might well have had the broad view of the world reflected in the verse, while Shakespeare was a sort of mechanic, an actor, unfamiliar with high matters and incapable of "Macbeth" or anything else.

It passes all reason that writers as spectacular as Donne and Jonson would be confused on who wrote the plays, and even if the earl (a favorite argument) thought it beneath him to settle merely for being England's greatest gift to the world, it is not bloody likely that Donne would get it wrong.

But what has always stuck in my throat (apart from a residual common sense, a decent respect for history and a general distrust of conspiracy theories) is the blithe assumption that a rude lowborn fellow is less likely to do the works of genius than a courtier. As if Haldeman or Ehrlichman, say, were the likeliest candidates for American literary splendor (such as it is).

I have actually heard the argument advanced that as the plays are commonly set in foreign places, and as Shakespeare was no traveler, he could not even have known about them.

Actors of prominence, at least in the 16th century, actually went to good grammar schools sometimes, and sometimes actually read books. Any kid leaving King Edward's School (if I recall Shakespeare's school right) probably knew more about Italy, Denmark or Bermuda than is displayed in any of the plays.

And I imagine there were then, as now, a great many servants who knew as much about high life as the average peer, having had great leisure to observe how the mighty carry on, whereas the mighty do not commonly observe much, being insulated by their general notion that doing things properly is what servants are for.

Even in Washington, which is the last stronghold of the finger bowl, there are people of high consequence who neither know nor care how to eat a dessert with both fork and spoon, and many who do not know where to sit when they enter a room or when to leave. American guests in general either get up and leave before the guest of honor or else (more commonly) stay till the dogs greet the sunrise.

But apart from the obvious -- that any number of people in Shakespeare's day knew (and even an actor could have known) as much about Verona as the earl of Oxford -- there remains the evidence of contemporaries. Since they thought Shakespeare wrote the plays, so do I.

Besides, people give the earl of Oxford too great credit for modesty when they suppose any earl in Christendom would go to his grave without taking credit for the sonnets and the plays.

The thing about Shakespeare is twofold: his astounding vocabulary and his mastery of art. Possibly Milton surpassed him in skill at using meter, and here and there a poet surpassed him in some byway of verse. But not even Milton nuts seriously compare him to Shakespeare. If they do they are simply unadorned nuts. His genius shows most brilliantly in the sonnets. In a play, whether about Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, you have the plot to carry you along and a whole stage full of fascinating characters.

But if you sit down to write 14 lines saying your lover is not as gorgeous as Zsa Zsa Gabor but you find her incomparable nevertheless, you have your work cut out for you. Almost everybody feels this. But nobody has matched Shakespeare's way of saying it.

When he says her eyes are "nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red," the information he gives is hardly worth giving. But anybody who ever tried a love poem will testify that most of them are just dumb.

When Cleopatra hauls Antony by ropes up the tower you can read almost the same (and many of the same words) in a good translation of Plutarch's "Lives." But almost is the key word.

It's hardly necessary to belabor the magnificence of the verse and I suppose even the earl of Oxford fanciers, in between looking for messages from outer space, are agreed on that.

The last English monarch who could write her way off a streetcar was Elizabeth Tudor and even she, in the days of our tongue's greatest power, fell far short of the greatest poet. In our own country, the men of greatest power have rarely written well and never with genius. So why do we suppose that an unparalleled thunderbolt is more likely to strike an earl than an actor?

Snobbery. I always like to meet earls and viscounts more than I would if they were Mr. Brown. It's the same with senators and Supreme Court justices. The title has an attractive ring, even if the possessor glows only dimly.

But such snobbery or celebrity-hunting is somewhat justified in these cases, since Mr. Brown is probably no more lustrous than Sen. Lungworthy and the title, therefore, may properly tip the balance.

But at lofty levels, where there is an enormous difference between Mr. Brown and Mr. Churchill, say, or Mr. Jones and Mr. Jefferson, the advantage of the title falls away.

In this debate, by the way, Shakespeare won.

Even apart from the fact that everybody has always known Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, there is the plain fact that over the centuries vagabonds have a better literary record than lords. A snowball in Hell might very well make it, but the good earl's chances are not so good.