ROME — Shakespeare in the Park is a natural summer activity in many cities, but when the park is in Rome, questions about the playwright's faith and philosophy seem particularly pertinent.

"Summertime is a festive time, and Shakespeare's plays, especially his comedies, are festive," said Andrew Moran, a professor of English at the University of Dallas and assistant director of the university's summer Shakespeare in Italy program for high school students.

The Bard's comedies bring us "out into the green world, where people are revived," and so it is natural that cities worldwide offer outdoor Shakespeare experiences during the summer months.

Rome's open-air Globe Theatre in Villa Borghese provides an opportunity "to be under the stars to enjoy nature" with its own Shakespearean summer offerings, Moran said.

Although "most academics will say that Shakespeare never visited Italy," his connection to the country and its culture is obvious, Moran told Catholic News Service.

As a boy, Shakespeare had a proficient knowledge of Latin and was inspired by the great poets of the language like Ovid and Plutarch, the professor explained. In addition, "Shakespeare shows that he has knowledge of Italy, which seemingly he would not have picked up in a book," the professor said, citing names for Shakespeare's characters peculiar to certain areas of Italy as well as references to academic debates in the Italian universities of his day.

"For example, in Venice," the professor said, "there is a statue of a hunchback named Gobbo and, of course, the clown in the Merchant of Venice is Lancelot Gobbo. The question is how would Shakespeare have known about the name Gobbo in relation to Venice?" It's not solid proof, Moran conceded, but "it's just a peculiar thing."

Moran also said that during Shakespeare's so-called "lost years," an eight-year period in the 1580s during which little is known about the playwright's whereabouts, a certain Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis or William of Stratford, a clerk, was a visitor to Rome's Venerable English College, the seminary of the bishops of England and Wales.

Shakespeare's religious convictions also convey a sympathy for the Catholic Church at a time when England and Rome were at odds on matters of faith, the professor said.

In his plays, he said, "Shakespeare makes lots of references to the specific controversy that was at the heart of the reformation," which was "the question about baptism and justification."

Shakespeare's characters often speak of "somebody else as being spotted," a Reformation-era metaphor used to describe the stain of sin on the soul, and characters wrestle over whether humans can "truly be cleansed of the spot of sin."

These subtle religious dilemmas appear in "Othello," "Much Ado about Nothing," "The Winter's Tale" and "Cymbeline," Moran said.

Shakespeare uses the metaphor to convey a very Catholic message, he explained. "The characters who speak in a Protestant idiom are repeatedly shown to be wrong" when they accuse others of being "spotted."

Shakespeare also seems to depart from a Protestant theology of grace and good works, Moran argued.

In "The Winter's Tale," the character Hermione refers to one of her good deeds saying, "Oh that my good deed had an elder sister, would her name were grace," Moran said. "That is, good deeds and grace are related if they're sisters? This seems to be a very Catholic language," he said.

Asked whether Shakespeare was certainly a Catholic, "There is no slam-dunk evidence. ... Who knows?" Moran replied. Nevertheless, Catholics have a special reason to be interested in reading the works of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's understanding of human nature "matches well with the Catholic understanding of human beings being created good, fallen and redeemed," Moran said.

Shakespeare, he said, is a modern figure "with a sophisticated modern understanding of the self that is still grounded in an optimism about human nature and yet an honesty about human nature that is decidedly Catholic."