WHERE IS WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE now that we need him? The case of the "gentleman bandit cries out for the Bard; It is a modern-day Shakespearian sequence: small-town priest arrested and charged with robberies of several small stores in a neighboring state, months of speculation about his alleged, incongrous dual careers, a trial at which several eyewitnesses identify him as the polite, blackhatted robber, and then the stunning entrance of another man, of similar build and mien, who confesses to the crime and pleads guilty while the priest is absolved.

What has made this improbable drama even more fascinating is the wealth of human frailties, misperceptions and loose ends involved. For instance, the defendant, the Rev. Bernard T. Pagano, apparently had less than perfect explanations of his whereabouts on the days of some of the crimes. He also failed a lie-detector test, a fact that was publicized though not admissible in court.

In real 20th-century life the problem was this: The Delaware State Police made several errors that compounded the basic mistake of arresting an innocent man. Lacking physical evidence such as the money or fingerprints, they relied too heavily on eyewitnesses -- who first identified Father Pagano as the "bandit" in a lineup held after the priest's arrest and picture had been publicized. And once they thought they had their man, the police apparantly pursued other leads in a perfunctory way. Earlier this month, after getting a tip, they learned that the "other man," Ronald W. Clouser, had admitted to similar holdups in Pennsylvania -- but dismissed him as a possible suspect after a brief interview.

Then there is the fact that Mr. Clouser had been through a period of great emotional and financial strains. This, he said, drove him to commit the holdups in the first place. But that history also caused the prosectors to probe his current mental state, as well as his detailed knowledge of the crimes, before agreeing to accept his guilty plea and drop the charges against Father Pagano.

Finally, there is the role played by the great publicity that the case received, largely because of the happenstance that the defendant was a priest. The nationwide reports about the case no doubt caused more anguish for Father Pagano. But, according to Mr. Clouser, the reports about the course of the trial led him to conclude that Father Pagano might be convicted if he did not step forward and confess.

Given all those factors of chance and circumstance, it is remarkable that a just result was reached. A number of cautionary lessons can be drawn about the unreliability of eyewitnesses and the danger of jumping to judgments in criminal cases. The one we prefer concerns the value -- demonstrated in this instance -- of public trials.