The Merry Wives of Windsor is the first recorded use of the phrase ‘What the dickens…?’ Plainly it does not refer to Charles Dickens because it predates his birth by several hundred years. Some phrase finders suggest that ‘dickens’ is used by Shakespeare to refer to the devil in a new way that is a twist on similar words.
But it is not sure, and it could be a twist on the nickname for Richard. Or it could be something that Shakespeare pulled out of the air. After all, he invented more than one thousand new words and brought them into the English language.
Here is scene II of The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the phrase highlighted.
SCENE II. A street.
Enter MISTRESS PAGE and ROBIN
Nay, keep your way, little gallant; you were wont to
be a follower, but now you are a leader. Whether
had you rather lead mine eyes, or eye your master’s heels?
I had rather, forsooth, go before you like a man
than follow him like a dwarf.
O, you are a flattering boy: now I see you’ll be a courtier.
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want
of company. I think, if your husbands were dead,
you two would marry.
Be sure of that,–two other husbands.
Where had you this pretty weather-cock?
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s
Sir John Falstaff.
Sir John Falstaff!
He, he; I can never hit on’s name. There is such a
league between my good man and he! Is your wife at
Indeed she is.
By your leave, sir: I am sick till I see her.
Exeunt MISTRESS PAGE and ROBIN