When last we visited those rambunctious Shakespearean scholars, they were once again beating the bones of the buried. A curious political science professor in California was about to reveal the tabulations of a controversial computer analysis of literary minutiae to eliminate pretenders to the Shakespearean mantle and, per chance, reveal who was the genius behind the greatest works of English literature.

Meanwhile, supporters of claimants other than the self-same Will Shakespeare we all learned about in school (Stratford-on-Avon, the Globe Theatre, etcetera) prepared to do battle in the name of "the Authorship Question" -- the intellectual imbroglio over Shakespeare's true identity. Even some thin-skinned Stratfordians (those who accept the historical and biological Shakespeare as the one and only) took offense that someone would stoop to conquer their hero by cranking his tender sweet couplets into an uncaring computer.

Alas, the annals of literati are prime for scandal.

"I think he's a jackass," charges Charlton Ogburn, a distinguished Oxfordian -- those disputants who make the intriguing case that "William Shakespeare" was but a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a gifted man of court caught in a web of romance and courtly connivance. The target of Ogburn's inflection is Claremont McKenna College professor Ward E.Y. Elliott, who, with co-conspirator mathematician Robert Valenza and the inquisitive students of The Shakespeare Clinic, put Shakespeare and 18 would-be's to the test. A series of tests, actually, that attempted to match literary proclivities and devices. All of which Ogburn and other detractors decry as folly -- not the least because their man Oxford (as well as the other claimants) fared none too well.

"It gets me terribly upset," says Ogburn, 80, a writer who lives in Beaufort, S.C., and likens himself on this subject to Old Faithful, because he so frequently spouts off. "I think the whole thing is off on a tangent. {Elliott} doesn't know what he is doing. You cannot determine the authorship on a computer analysis of styles."

Mild-mannered Ward Elliott, whose accent is telling of Cambridge where his father was a respected Harvard political scientist and, truth-be-known, an unreserved Oxfordian, denies the clinic's work is much ado about nothing. "No number of matches can prove common authorship," he states steadfastly, "but a good mismatch can disprove it." Put simply, if a claimant's verse doesn't look like Shakespeare's, walk like Shakespeare's, or quack like Shakespeare's, it ain't Shakespeare's. Or something like that.

The results? "Let the end try the man," as the mysterious author of "Henry IV, Part 2" wrote. None of the claimants, not Marlowe, Spencer, Bacon, Oxford, or any of the other major-domos of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, came close enough to raise any eyebrows when tested on comparative line-endings, punctuation tendencies, relative clauses, and hyphenated words, among other "identifiers." The tested poems attributed to Shakespeare, on the other hand, proved highly consistent within themselves, suggesting that whoever wrote them was an individual and not a committee of bards, as some anti-Stratfordians have argued in earnest. "The hope was that we could shorten the list of credible claimants," says Elliott. "Nobody we tested passed."

If that would seem to abate the debate, Elliott says the clinic's clincher is a test called Modal Analysis. He considers it the brass knuckles of this literary rumble, seemingly packed with enough analytical knock-out to send sprawling any unworthy wordsmiths. A complicated piece of mathematical engineering that Valenza devised using algorithms, eigenvalues, convariance matrices and other generally incomprehensible things, it compares the repeated use of keywords in 90 500-word blocks of Shakespeare's poems to 1,331 blocks of poems by 23 claimants (including all the known poems of Oxford) and by seven non-claimants.

"It seems to be amazingly effective," Elliott says of Modal Analysis. "And it is saying yes to the Shakespeare profile, and showing that everybody else is outside of it." Even those few whom the Modal said stacked up closest to Shakespeare -- among them, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Barnefeld, Michael Drayton, and Sir Edward Dyer -- still sported no more than a 1-in-50 chance of having scribbled the Bard's poesy.

And what of Oxford? "I'm afraid, in some respects," says Elliott, "Oxford was among the worst mismatches by our best tests."

Emphasizing that the tests are far from conclusive, that fine-tuning them may yet yield unexpected results, that anti-Stratfordians should not "stack arms" and end their claims, Elliott admits nonetheless that his own grounding in Oxford is shaken. "I've conceded that if I had a time machine and had one day to spend in England," he says, "I would probably spend it in Stratford-on-Avon rather than Havering-attre-Bowre {the De Vere estate on the Thames}. A year ago, it would have been the other way around."

This kind of talk does little to endear him to Oxfordians -- considered the best versed, numerous and organized of those who believe the man from Stratford (whose name was spelled "Shakspere" and pronounced Shackspur) was an illiterate shylock and no master poet or playwright. Indeed, following release of the clinic's findings in September, the Shakespeare-Oxford Society rescinded an invitation for Elliott to give a scheduled presentation at the group's annual conference a month later in Pasadena. "So many people objected," explains Society president Elizabeth Sears. Instead, he rented a hotel room and gave an unofficial presentation -- under fire.

"You might ask him what he really thinks he's going to find?" says Morse Johnson, a Cincinnati attorney and editor of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society Newsletter. "What if John Smith, just to use any name, turns up as matching Shakespeare the best? Does that change our thinking on this?"

Doubtful. Besides being a stubborn lot, Oxfordians tend to be inveterate textual analyzers, and they're pretty much satisfied that the clinic's procedures suffered from serious flaws and fallacies. One critique that Elliott calls a "guardedly thumping denunciation," printed in the SOS newsletter, charged that "as we begin to examine the tests in detail, they crumble."

Written by Peter R. Moore, a former legislative assistant and Arlington resident who devotes himself to searching Shakespearean sonnets for telltale signs of Oxford, it starts with a standard Oxfordian brickbat: "Shakspere of Stratford is not tested, maintaining his status as the Teflon candidate."

This refers to the fact that nothing more than six poorly penned and erratically spelled signatures (none of them spelled "Shakespeare") has survived from the hand of William Shakspere -- "the Stratford man," as Oxfordians denigratingly call him. Anti-Stratfordians find it implausible that the author of 154 sonnets, 38 plays and other poems left no other physical evidence of his magnificent literary legacy -- or, if he did, that there would be in the years following his death a conspiracy of such magnitude that all evidence should be destroyed.

Moore's rebuke turns more pointed, however. The methodology of the clinic's tests has never been validated, he asserts. The "small and uncertain canon" recognized as Oxford's makes the testing "treacherous." And the time factor is ignored: Fifteen years separate the bulk of Oxford's poems from those of Shakespeare. Oxfordians argue that the latter, published between 1593 and 1609, are the mature and developed writings of De Vere and shouldn't be expected to "match" his earliest attempts to put pen to paper.

Furthermore, the clinic's scoring was unintentionally biased, charges Moore. Consider the Relative Clause test: Broken into six categories, Oxford scores "within Shakespeare's range on five," he says, but fails to match Shakespeare in the sixth for beginning too many relative clauses with the word "that." Two fewer "thats" overall, says Moore, and Oxford would've matched Shakespeare on the test. Instead, it's a mismatch. "Casual inspection reveals that the number of 'thats' falls off sharply with the later poems," he writes. "In other words, the youthful Oxford was already moving in Shakespeare's direction ... ."Moore also wonders how the clinic could judge comparative use of exclamation marks when it is probable punctuation in Shakespeare's early texts are an editor's or publisher's -- not the author's? What's more, he adds, Oxford's poems likely were written before exclamation marks became a commonly used punctuation. So how can he fail for lacking them?

Of Moore's criticism, Elliott says some points are on-target and echoes his own reservations about the tests, others are simply erroneous. "We do not think our tests have 'crumbled' under the closer scrutiny they have gotten so far," Elliott replies. "Far less that they are full of 'blatant bias and distortion.' ... We think our tests leave enough potential loopholes and discounts on internal evidence to give quite a bit of room to Oxfordians and other claimant advocates to continue their work on external evidence, and indeed, to look hard for further evidence to discount or refute our findings. Ours is not the last word on the subject."

Oxfordians believe wholeheartedly that, despite resistance among academicians to their case, the last word on the subject will be theirs. "To persuade the orthodox professors and their dedicated followers among the literati to acknowledge the facts of the origin of Shakespeare's works," declares Charlton Ogburn, " ... would be like trying to persuade the growing legions of Christian fundamentalists, who swear by biblical inerrancy, to acknowledge the facts of evolution."

But the author of "The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & the Reality" (available from EPM Publications Inc. in McLean), 892 pages of Oxfordian theory, tweaks those he refers to as "academia nuts" for being paranoid: "We all started out with the premise that the Stratford man did it."

At face value, the reams of circumstantial evidence (enough to prosecute were this a criminal case) that Oxfordians have accumulated proves convincing -- at the very least of the notion that troubling gaps and incongruities exist in the life of the poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Consider a few of the basics of the Oxford argument, according to Charlton Ogburn:

On the evidence, Will Shakspere of Stratford never had a day's schooling, never owned a book and could barely write his name. "He grew up and ended his days in the bosom of illiterates, which included his parents," says Ogburn. "The notion that the greatest of all masters of English was content with an illiterate wife and never taught his daughters to write is surely one of the zaniest that ever held sway of the majority of mankind."

Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, his name was hyphenated {Shake-speare} almost as often as not, suggesting it was recognized as a pen-name, made up as descriptive of an action. "Orthodox professors have been unable to come up with a single case of a genuine English name similarly hyphenated in common usage," he says.

Not for generations did anyone from Stratford whom we know of attribute any distinction to Will Shakspere. "They did not even consider worth having his name inscribed on his tomb," says Ogburn. "Shakspere's death went publicly unremarked, so far as we know, except for a brief mention in the church burial record."

"As for his alleged prominence as an actor, no one we know of ever reported having seen him on stage. The most comprehensive list of actors of the day contain no mention of his name. That there was an actor named Shake-speare who was also the dramatist, we know from the poet {himself} who told us that had he 'not played some kingly parts in sport,' he {would have } 'been a companion for a king.' "

Edward de Vere, however, was enraptured with theater, says Ogburn. "He wrote for the common stage, and even sneaked into certain roles," but always under his pseudonym because this would have been inconceivable for a nobleman of his time.

Shakespeare was called the "Soul of the age! ... the wonder of our stage." Yet no one reported in the years when he was alive to have seen, met, or had any communication with him. The only three who ever wrote of knowing him did so years after his death, and then in such ambivalent terms as to include not a single personal detail.

All but one of Shakespeare's comedies are set on the European continent, the majority in Italy. No evidence indicates Will Shakspere traveled in Europe. But, in 1575-1576, the Earl of Oxford toured Italy extensively "and it had an overwhelming effect on him."

After fighting in three tournaments and commanding his ship in the Battle of the Armada, Oxford turned reclusive and, by his mid-thirties, "withdrew from the court scene. That's when the Shakespearean works were appearing."

Shakespeare's plays were "devastating characterizations" of courtly life, written by one who knew firsthand the highest level of society. "Does art spring into being by immaculate conception in the mind of the artist or is it something he drags out of his experience and his character, something he knows?" Ogburn asks. "Every writer knows you can't fake it. The Stratford man had no admittance whatsoever to the highest courts."

Why would Oxford use a pseudonym? "He bemoaned it in the sonnets: 'Every word doth almost tell my name ... .' But the first and least important reason was that a nobleman simply didn't sign works for publication under his own name at that time."

From studying the peculiarities of the famous engraving of Shakespeare (Martin Droeshout's on the "First Folio") to citing hidden references to the name "Vere" in the sonnets and plays, Oxfordians proceed fully expecting to uncover "a smoking gun" that will prove their case beyond doubt.

"It's going to explode very soon," says a confident Elizabeth Sears of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society. The Boxford, Mass., resident is fast at work to prove that Oxford and Queen Elizabeth were lovers, maybe even secretly married, that the entire Shakespeare cover-up stems from a complex conspiracy to hide the son she bore him -- indeed, the heir to the throne who never became king. Too fantastic? "There are none so deaf as those who will not hear," says Sears. "Sonnet 66 states it very clearly that he was 'tongue-tied by authority.' To me, the evidence is irrefutable."

Another researcher is matching the earl's documented travels in Italy with scenes and references in Shakespeare's comedies. "It's going to be a blockbuster," says Sears.

Why so much resistance then to the evidence among those who study Shakespeare professionally? "They're running scared," says Sears. "They're so afraid that we are going to get the absolute proof." Ogburn says he understands the rebuff: "Once you decide that the Stratford man was not the author, the orthodox case doesn't simply look faulty, it looks ludicrous." Even Ward Elliott bemoans the absence of a well-documented, well-reasoned Stratfordian position: "They're basically devoted to ridiculing the ideas of the anti-Stratfordians ... They consider it lunacy to even deign to deal with it."

Which would leave Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, turning in his grave? "I should think so," says Ogburn. "But I hope his poor tortured spirit will be at ease before very long."

Don Oldenburg last wrote on this controversy in "Shakespeare By Any Other Name," April 17.