"Poetry-starved" might not be the first adjective that comes to mind to describe Washingtonians. But how else to account for the long, excited lines of people stretching across the doorstep and down the front path of a church at Ward Circle the other day, at 8:45 in the morning, an hour and a quarter before a debate on Shakespeare was to begin?

True, it wasn't your average debate on Shakespeare. Three Supreme Court justices -- William Brennan, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens -- had agreed to hear oral arguments on what is known to aficionados simply as "The Authorship Question": whether a man named William Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon actually wrote the plays and poems that have brought him immortal glory.

You might think such a purely literary matter impinged on the consciousness of political Washington only because of the presence of three of its own leading actors. But the actual situation is more complicated. The Authorship Question is, if possible, considered even more of a fringe matter in the literary world than in the political. Professional Shakespeareans, as you might call them, are pretty much unanimous in agreeing that, of course, Will Shakespeare wrote his works, and only elitists naive about the Elizabethan era would think any differently. (The backbone of the anti-Shakespeare argument is that only a nobleman could have(a) been well enough educated to write such wide-ranging plays and (b) expressed the kind of "conservative," "royalist" views that can be read into them.) The antis, most of them doctors and lawyers, retort that this unanimity just shows that a pro-Stratfordian cartel is protecting the premise on which rests a gigantic pyramid of paper scholarship of the hidden-meaning- in-Shakespeare's-laundry-bills type.

The Washington event, then, appealed equally to two usually separate worlds united in their skepticism; and in fact each world, stretching the possibilities of the fashionable academic word "interdisciplinary," passed some gifts across the barrier. The mastermind was local philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger, who is prominently affiliated with local arts institutions (the Corcoran, Arena Stage) and with American University, which served as host. Kreeger wedded these affiliations, his own fervent interest in the anti-Stratfordian position and, not least, his friendship from law school days with Justice Brennan to set up the debate and make it a media event.

That legitimacy was one gift from official Washington to a literary fringe group. Others went in the reverse direction. Neither of the advocates arguing the case -- James Boyle for Shakespeare, Richard Jaszi for an Elizabethan noble named Edward de Vere -- is a litte'rateur; both are AU law professors. Asked by their dean in July to take part, they had picked sides quite casually and put in a few months of research without expecting either the public's interest or their own to reach so high a pitch. (As 10 a.m. neared, both of them were still slightly hysterical with excitement over their appearance several hours earlier on "Good Morning America.")

The "anti-Stratfordians" believe -- and have published armloads of books and magazines arguing -- that the man from Stratford was nothing but an illiterate hack or a theatrical investor who lent his name (some say for a bribe) to front for a lord. Why would a lord want to hide his authorship of the plays? Because writing commercial plays would have been seen as embarrassing for a nobleman. How do we know our man, then? Through various coded references, conspiracy theories and biographical parallels to the plays in the lives of various candidates, most strikingly de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford -- a descendant of whom was on hand for the occasion, surrounded by dedicated anti-Stratfordians from several continents.

The passion of the anti-Stratfordians, their recurrence in every era and their often bizarre lines of argument make them easiest to confront as some sort of psycho-cultural phenomenon. Boyle, counsel for the man from Stratford, went a short way down this path in his concluding argument, pointing out that the Oxfordian argument -- with its emphasis on parallels between the 17th earl's life and episodes in the plays -- answers a need in many readers to "fix" the exact meanings of plays whose richness and depth actually allow for innumerable levels and variations of interpretation. When Boyle suggested shyly (he is a Scotsman) that this longing for "limited meanings" of texts may not be entirely unrelated to the hunger to establish the "original intent" of the framers of other major documents, all three justices condescended to grin at him.

They were kind, in general, and in obvious high good humor -- as were the serried ranks of their law clerks sitting off to one side of the stage, and the two advocates, and the dozens of journalists in the pews -- all gleeful at the opportunity to spend time on this and call it work. The anti-Stratfordians had argued vociferously at first for the argumentative principle of "Occam's razor": the argument preferred should be the one that accounts for the greatest number of facts while requiring the least number of additional assumptions. By the conclusion of the oral arguments, sensing the approach of public humiliation, they were backing water, arguing that their case was "far too complicated" to be made in a forum like this one. (The movement's main book, Charlton Ogburn's "The Mysterious Shakespeare," runs 850 pages.)

But when the verdict came, it was gentle. Only Justice Brennan slapped them down, issuing a categorical opinion that the Stratfordian case was watertight. Justice Blackmun declined to give a definite ruling (the three read their opinions and comments separately, in the English way), begging off on lack of expertise, saying his mind was "tossing on the ocean" ("The Merchant of Venice") and that "I wish I were back studying English literature." Justice Stevens had evinced severity at moments in the cross-examination ("That is pure speculation," he rebuked Jaszi at one point), but he ruled that though the antis had not sufficiently met the burden of proof, "I don't think the contrary view is wholly frivolous." He also offered what seemed sympathetic advice -- as from a connoisseur of argumentation -- on how best the de Vere partisans might pursue their case. Reverting swiftly to modern techniques of spin control, the anti-Stratfordians declared victory into all the available TV cameras.

Though their gain was undeniable, which should have dismayed any serious Stratfordian, even the most orthodox seemed to radiate cheerfulness. AU President Richard Berendzen, in closing remarks, got it right when he noted that the presence of 1,800 spectators, plus more turned away, suggested a great local love of the arts that tends to escape public view: the turnout, he said, "shows we have our priorities straight." His point was reinforced in a taxicab back from Ward Circle when the driver, seeing the woodcut face of the Bard on a passenger's freebie issue of The Spear-Shaker Review, grilled her in labored English for a full account of the proceedings. When the passenger expressed surprise, he explained he had studied Shakespeare in high school in Yemen.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.